FAYETTEVILLE -- A bigger, better-equipped veterans community clinic in Fort Smith will open by the spring, possibly as soon as March, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday during a stop in Fayetteville.
The department broke ground on the 34,000-square-foot Fort Smith facility Oct. 30. Secretary Denis McDonough answered reporters' questions while touring the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks hospital in Fayetteville with Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Womack, both R-Ark.
"There's a lot of rancor in Washington, but not about veterans," Boozman said at the Fayetteville stop. "That's something we're bipartisan about, and the secretary is doing a very good job."
The clinic's construction and progress on other projects are largely due to Boozman and Womack, the secretary said. McDonough was appointed by President Joe Biden and was a White House chief of staff for former President Barack Obama.
McDonough praised the staff at the Ozarks system. One indicator of the quality of the staff is their record on covid, the secretary said. To date, only two employees of the facility have contracted covid, and in both cases, they contracted the disease while off work, he said. That is a remarkable safety record during a pandemic, he said, an achievement that shows great care and attention to detail.
The scandal involving former pathologist Robert Morris Levy won't be repeated, McDonough said. Levy, the former chief pathologist of the Ozarks system, pleaded guilty in June 2020 to one count of manslaughter for missed diagnoses. He was sentenced in January to 20 years in federal prison.
"We're never going to forget it, and we're never going to let it happen again," McDonough said of Levy.
Efforts to protect those who report deficiencies -- intoxication while at work, in Levy's case -- are in place throughout the department, McDonough said.
"No one should have to choose between their conscience and their career," he said.
While the Levy scandal and a pandemic was going on in Arkansas, the number of patient visits to department facilities was going up, McDonough said. Health care visits went up to 78 million in 2020 compared to 74 million the year before despite pandemic restrictions, the secretary said.
At the same time, telemedicine conferences with patients increased from 2,500 a day nationwide to 45,000, he said. Doctor visits by video link have been very successful and will continue to be used when appropriate after all pandemic restrictions have lapsed, McDonough said.
Challenges still facing the veterans health care system include a severe rise in the number of substance abuse cases, largely caused by the isolation of veterans during the pandemic, Boozman and the secretary said. Another is the relative lack of facilities for women veterans, Boozman said.
The Fort Smith facility will add eye care, audiology, laboratory and radiology services to the existing clinic's services. The number of exam rooms will grow from nine to 27, according to the Veterans Department.
Based in Fayetteville, the Ozarks system serves veterans living in 23 counties in Northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma. The health care system also has clinics in Harrison and Ozark, Ark.; Branson, Springfield and Joplin, Mo.; and Jay, Okla.