NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - $279,000 a month. That's how much the VA is paying to lease its health care clinic near the Wilmington airport. They are still paying that rent in full, even though the building has been partially shut down for months due to internal water contamination.
WECT uncovered this figure in early June when asking VA officials if they were withholding rent since they haven't been able to use their dental, urology and GI facilities since March.
That lease amount for the 80,742 square foot clinic breaks down to about $41 per square foot annually. Commercial real estate agents in Wilmington tell us that's about twice the going rate for prime medical office space in Wilmington, which typically runs between $18-$24 per square foot.
Last week, we requested more details from the VA on what that lease includes - if it's just the building, or if it also includes equipment and utilities.
Tax payers are leasing the clinic from Summit Smith HealthCare in Wisconsin. The company has been making headlines in recent weeks because several departments in the Wilmington Health Care Center have been unusable due to heavy metal contamination in the water resulting from internal plumbing problems.
We've also asked the VA what taxpayers are spending to lease other local clinics, but we're still waiting for answers. After submitting our first public information request for lease details via phone last week, and then via e-mail at the VA's request, we were asked to submit a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the agency's privacy officer in Fayetteville.
Once WECT submitted the formal FOIA request electronically on Monday, we received further correspondence from the VA that they needed it submitted with our written signature. We complied with that request later that day, only to receive another e-mail from the VA on Thursday that they didn't understand our request.
Difficulty getting answers is a common theme for veterans who have been contacting us with their VA frustrations. One vet says he's been waiting for years to see an orthopedic surgeon at the VA for service-connected knee problems, and finally resorted to paying for treatment out-of-pocket from a private provider.
Another vet who is missing a tooth and needs an implant says she's been waiting for months for a dental appointment at the Wilmington VA clinic to no avail. We are reaching out to the VA on behalf of these veterans and others who have contacted us in recent weeks.
Senator Richard Burr's office has requested a briefing by the VA within the next month on how many veterans have been referred to other clinics or had their doctor's appointments rescheduled because of the water problems at the Wilmington clinic.
"As part of that briefing," Senator Burr wrote in a June 15th letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, "I would also like to receive an update on what VA is doing to ensure work at the [Wilmington Health Care Clinic] continues without delay to bring the water to an acceptably safe standard that will permit resumption of all HCC services and how VA will relieve the backlog of appointments after full services resume."
Fayetteville VA officials sent out a press release on Thursday saying that a water sample submitted for testing last week meets EPA requirements.
"The next collections are scheduled for Friday and June 26," the press release continues. "If those tests meet EPA requirements, all restrictions may be lifted by early July."
Medical appointments for services in departments that don't require potable water continue without interruption.