A new Veterans Affairs clinic could be coming to Myrtle Beach within 3 years.
Though the timeline for an opening is unclear, the new clinic will include 89,000 square feet of usable space, regional VA spokesperson Tonya Lobbestael said. The VA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. are close to soliciting bids for the project, and will select a contractor between April and June of next year.
“The VA was approved to build a consolidated clinic, which is a much larger clinic than what we currently have,” she said. “It’s part of the VA reform legislation we have that was passed in 2014.”
The medical system currently operates two outpatient locations in the city: one at 3381 Phillis Blvd., and another a few blocks away at 1101 Johnson Ave.
On Wednesday, some veterans who use the existing clinics said the facilities struggle to keep pace with the amount of patients. Veterans said they frequently had to go as far as Charleston to receive care.
“It’s overcrowded and it takes a while to wait for a doctor,” said Tom Baisley, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. “I think with more doctors and a larger facility, they’ll be able to accommodate the amount of veterans in the area.”
Baisley said that he didn’t bother calling the local clinics, instead choosing to come and schedule in person. Derek Sipe, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War, had arrived at the clinic to fix an appointment that had been double-booked at both Myrtle Beach and a Charleston location.
He said traveling to faraway locations was a frequent hassle.
“I’ve tried to go out to Conway. It would be much easier to go there, but if it’s not 30 days out, they can’t do it,” Sipe said. “It’s easier than going to Charleston, when you have to take a whole day out of your life to go out there.”
BJ Farmer, the administrative officer for both of Myrtle Beach’s clinics, said they serve roughly 12,000 veterans. A projected 29,250 total veterans live in Horry County, making it the third largest population of any county in the state, although some do not choose to receive care through the VA system.
“We certainly need to have some expanded space in Myrtle Beach because it is a significant growth area for us,” Lobbestael said.
The two local clinics have about 117 employees between them, including 12 primary care teams. The clinics also house specialists in five areas: audiology, dermatology, physical therapy, optometry and podiatry. However, some specialty services and any outpatient procedure that could require hospital admittance have to be administered in Charleston, which Farmer called the “mother ship” hospital for the local VA system.
“We are working very hard to push more specialty care out to the local clinics as much as possible,” Lobbestael said.
She added that some patients who use mental health providers through the VA have benefited from telehealth technology, which allows patients to remotely speak with practitioners in Charleston.
The new facility promises to bring even more specialized care to the area once it opens. At least three contractors have expressed a desire to bid for the eventual clinic, Myrtle Beach Director of Planning Carol Coleman said. One site included a plan for a 110,000-square-foot facility at Seaboard Street and Pine Island Road. The two other plans were both located on the site of the old air force base by Farrow Parkway, a location Coleman said would be ideal for the clinic.
At the request of the developers, city council rezoned that area to allow for a medical facility during its Tuesday meeting.
“It wouldn’t do them (developers) any good to get the bid from the government and then turn around and say, ‘oh, now we have to get it rezoned,’” Coleman said.
Once the facility is built, the VA plans to lease it from the developer, Lobbestael said. She did not know how much the lease might cost.
“It will become a reality. It’s legislated and it’s going to be built,” Lobbestael said. “It’s just a matter of where and how quickly we can get it.”
One man, a Marine veteran identified himself by his first name, Grayson, said he visited Myrtle Beach clinic to compare its services with the VA center in Biloxi, Miss., where he lives. Grayson, who was considering moving to the Grand Strand to be closer to his son, said it was hard to compare local veteran services with that area, which recently opened a new VA hospital.
Grayson said that for his decision to move, a new clinic would be a wash.
“I don’t think it’s a plus unless they offer everything in-house, and I don’t think that’ll be possible,” he said.