Shimkus asks secretary to visit Danville VA campus

DANVILLE — U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, has delivered a letter inviting Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to visit the department's facility in Danville to tour and discuss services offered there, specifically a pending proposal to reduce services.

Last week, Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System announced that an official downgrading of its services, including intensive care, emergency and surgery services, was being considered for approval by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Local VA officials said that for various reasons, including difficulty recruiting medical specialists to the Danville campus, the approval would more accurately reflect the level of services already being offered there.

Doug Bugger, spokesman for Shimkus, said the congressman personally delivered the letter to Shinseki at Tuesday night's State of the Union address. The letter asks Shinseki to visit the Danville campus at an upcoming groundbreaking for 65 apartments and a community center for homeless veterans and their families. The letter also states that Shimkus' constituents are concerned about the physical needs of the campus and its future.

Bugger said Shimkus, who represents Danville, does not want to see services reduced at the Danville campus, because it would hurt local veterans. He said there have been proposals made to address the difficulty in recruiting specialty medical professionals to VA facilities in more rural communities like Danville, including proposed legislation to bump up pay for professionals who go to such facilities.

In a recent news release issued after his own visit to the Danville VA campus, Shimkus said the proposal to restructure its programs and services is drawing reaction from community leaders who are worried about the loss of staff and supportive jobs as well as any effect on the local economy.

Shimkus said until the secretary "sees the fine work being done here, I don't believe the VA should reduce the scope of its services in Danville."

Doug Shouse, spokesman at the Danville VA, said those at the local facility are glad to have Shimkus advocating on behalf of the their campus.

Shouse said one of Shinseki's initiatives is eliminating homelessness among veterans, and it's those efforts that have led to the project to build the apartment building and community center on the Danville campus for homeless veterans and their families. Shouse said the groundbreaking is expected to be in June or July.

The Danville campus was one of 34 VA facilities around the nation identified as having buildings that could be renovated or having land for new construction for housing homeless veterans. The local campus has 15 acres of land on its south end immediately south of where construction was finished in 2011 on group assisted living for veterans. The new apartment building will have one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Shouse said this project would take the local facility's services to a "whole new level," adding that veterans can take advantage of the services right on campus. And, he said, it will be a whole new culture for the facility, having veterans with spouses and kids on campus.

But, Shouse said, the campus also has physical needs in its existing buildings, which are aging and very outdated, especially for delivering today's medical services. He said they could be renovated, but they present challenges, especially with plumbing and electrical systems. He said there are plans for upgrading the existing facilities, but funding is still up in the air.

Shouse said the campus is the eighth oldest in the country, and there's been no new construction on the medical facilities since 1989. He said the campus could use a building for mental-health services, a nursing home and a small acute-care facility.

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