The coronavirus crisis has shut down activities all across the Omaha metro area — and the nation for that matter — but the veterans hospital on Woolworth Avenue is a hub of activity.
And not only in the waiting area, where VA staffers are screening patients for possible symptoms of COVID-19 and keeping out non-veteran visitors.
In addition to screening patients in the hospital lobby, the VA is calling veterans 24 to 48 hours ahead of appointments for prescreening, said Kevin Hynes, a spokesman for the VA Nebraska/Western Iowa Health Care System. Some patients are being seen instead using “telehealth” video technology so they can avoid in-person trips to the medical center.
Down a new hallway from the hospital lobby, construction hasn’t slowed at all on the new $86 million ambulatory care clinic.
“Construction is still proceeding according to schedule,” Hynes said.
The three-story building includes 157,000 square feet of modern exam rooms, outpatient surgery suites, a specialty medicine unit and a clinic designed especially for female veterans.
It is now 80% complete, Hynes said, and construction is expected to wrap up on schedule by June 30 after two years of work. The VA will then spend about two months outfitting and occupying the clinic before it opens to the public in late summer.
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A congressional visit last week focused attention on the project. Rep. Don Bacon, an Air Force veteran who represents the district that includes the hospital, toured the construction site along with Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., a physician and a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The new facility is being built on an old parking lot just north of the existing hospital, which was built in 1950. The old building will stay, and will continue to be used for inpatient hospital stays as well as for administrative offices and some medical services.
With separate funding, a badly needed parking garage also is being built on the site.
The clinic is being built in a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership between the VA and Omaha’s Heritage Services. The nonprofit has previously worked with Omaha’s business elite to build the Holland Center, TD Ameritrade Park and CHI Health Center, along with almost a score of other projects.
It is being built with $56 million in government military construction money and $30 million raised locally.
Bacon said the Omaha project is being closely watched in Congress, because the Veterans Affairs Committee hopes to try the public-private model at four other sites around the country.
“The success of this will help trigger the follow-ons,” Bacon said.
The women’s clinic will have a separate entrance and be on the ground floor, along with some primary care suites.
More primary care rooms are on the middle floor, which is connected to the main hospital by a hallway decorated with windows built to resemble the colored cloth ribbons on a service member’s uniform.
The top floor includes specialty clinics and operating room suites.
Dunn said, as a doctor, that he was impressed with the layout of the new facility.
“It’s going to be efficient as well as inviting,” he said.
Bacon and Dunn both were first elected in 2016, and became friends. Both served in the military.
Last year they worked together to get relief funding after disaster struck major military bases in or near their home districts.
In Dunn’s district, Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City suffered $4.7 billion in damage when Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, blew through in October 2018. Five months later, massive floods submerged Offutt Air Force Base near Bacon’s district and inflicted close to $1 billion in damage.
The members of Congress also received a briefing on the coronavirus threat.
“You’ve got to plan for the worst,” Bacon said.