The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs serves thousands of veterans in Nebraska and western Iowa — from aging World War II vets to those who served recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's a big job. And one made no easier by conditions with the aging Omaha VA Medical Center.

A 2007 study found the current VA hospital inadequate and outdated, with problems in its electrical system, heating and cooling systems and more.

Indeed, the hospital's water was shut off for some 17 hours earlier this year so workers could fix a series of persistent leaks. Rusted valves they found were the originals, from the 1950s. A 2007 study by the Leo A Daly architecture firm gave an "F" rating to the HVAC system and "D/F" ratings to the plumbing and electrical systems. Last year, operating rooms were closed for three months when devices that provide humidity to the rooms didn't function properly.

Recognizing the obvious need, VA officials unveiled plans in 2011 for a new four-story, 1 million-square-foot medical center, tentatively slated to open in 2018. But that's not going to happen.

While Congress earmarked $56 million to start planning, it's clear that the new facility won't open in 2018 as planned as it languishes on the VA's construction priority list. World-Herald staff writer Steve Liewer reported last month that it now ranks 28th among all VA medical projects and 23rd among major ones.

Yet the need remains.

Which is why a smart and innovative new idea offers real promise: Renovating the current 795,000-square-foot Creighton University Medical Center, which is scheduled to close in 2017, for use by the VA.

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said a group of Omaha business leaders who serve on Creighton University's board first proposed the idea to him and U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.

This week, the idea was discussed in a meeting between Nebraska congressional representatives and VA Secretary Robert McDonald. Encouragingly, the new secretary seems engaged, informed and responsive. McDonald was "intrigued" by the Creighton idea, Terry says.

Other alternatives were discussed, too. A "split option" of building a smaller VA medical center while leasing space in other Omaha-area hospitals; or perhaps securing local financing to build a $560 million facility on the current hospital grounds and leasing it back to the federal government.

Terry said McDonald seems to lean toward keeping a VA hospital at the current property near 42nd Street and Woolworth Avenue. But he is willing to consider a detailed feasibility study of renovating the Creighton hospital at 601 N. 30th St.

"It may be the best option on the table," the congressman told The World-Herald on Wednesday.

An Omaha engineering firm gave a preliminary estimate that it would cost about $250 million to renovate the Creighton facility for VA use. That would be less than half the $560 million estimated cost of an all-new VA hospital.

The potential advantages of a Creighton renovation make a lot of sense: Lower costs. A quicker resolution of a serious problem. Re-purposing of the existing Creighton facility.

And most importantly, a jump-start in providing Nebraska and Iowa veterans with the quality of care they have earned.


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