The VA Central California hospital, currently located in central Fresno, is considering moving some of its major functions to Clovis on 9.1 acres of land on the northeast corner of Herndon and Armstrong avenues.
Speculation about the move comes despite concerns by health equity advocates about access to health care, especially for rural communities and people without access to reliable transportation.
U.S. Veterans Affairs officials declined to comment on the types of services currently provided in Fresno that could be moved to the Clovis site.
A hint of the move came at the March 15 meeting of the Clovis City Council meeting when Councilmember Drew Bessinger revealed he and Mayor Jose Flores discussed with Veterans Administration officials about seeking funding to locate a new VA clinic in Clovis.
“They said the existing facility is being looked at for its seismic limitations and that there is a potential that, if the retrofit there would cost so much money, they may consider moving their entire facility here and the Veterans Medical Center would be in Clovis, which I think would be so awesome,” Bessinger said during the meeting.
“The expansion project is in its infancy stage of development,” said Will McCullough, public affairs officer for VA Central California, in an emailed statement. “Originally slated for parking, follow on projects may eventually include additional infrastructure and the development of several clinics located at the Clovis property. The clinics will supplement the Health Care System’s main Veterans hospital in Fresno.”
The VA Central California Health Care System serves more than 31,000 veterans in the region. The Fresno medical center campus, completed in 1950, includes a 57-bed acute care, general medical and surgical center and a 54-bed skilled nursing and rehabilitation center. Additional outpatient clinics are located in Tulare, Merced and Oakhurst. The VA does not have a facility serving veterans on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, including Kings County.
Parking is a major challenge at Fresno site
Bessinger told Fresnoland/The Bee in a follow-up interview that the property was initially purchased to help address parking issues at the Fresno site by allowing employees to park in Clovis and shuttle to the Fresno campus, a 15-minute ride.
The VA purchased the Clovis parcel in 2016 for $3.349 million from the Santa Barbara-based Transcontinental Corporation, according to public records.
Parking has long been an issue at the current location. There is no on-site parking structure. Patients and employees have previously parked their cars in the nearby residential neighborhoods.
The city formed Parking District #10 a few years ago in the neighborhood, giving local residents parking passes and enforcing restrictions on non-local street parking.
But parking solutions are coming, said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. The Fresno Housing Authority has entered into a temporary agreement with the VA to transform its vacant lot on the corner of Clinton and Angus avenues into 285 additional parking spaces. Work is being done on lighting and security services before the lot can officially open.
“I am also aware of concerns raised by neighbors and hospital employees regarding inadequate parking for employees and the need to acquire more parking options,” Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer said in an emailed statement. “My staff will be assisting with those efforts.”
Fresno officials working to improve current hospital
Costa said he is skeptical the hospital will move, citing $200 million in improvements he has brought to the facility during his tenure in Congress.
“We’ve definitely got transportation issues. I’ve always been a strong supporter of trying to avoid urban sprawl,” said Costa, adding that he has introduced legislation to bring a medical school to downtown Fresno and that the VA hospital would be a crucial part of that network. The VA has also invested resources in expanding tele-health access during the pandemic.
Dyer is a proponent of the hospital staying where it is.
“I have met with Congressman Costa, as well as the administration from Veterans Hospital regarding the expansion of medical services and possible relocation of the hospital to Clovis,” Dyer said. “Based on these conversations, I am confident that the hospital will not be relocating from its current location; however, expanding services in Clovis is likely.”
Fresno City Councilmember Nelson Esparza, whose district includes the hospital, said, “The VA is a community gem, especially serving our local veterans.
“There’s neighborhood tensions, as the VA grows. But at the City, we’re open and willing to partner with them, to navigate the bureaucracy.”
One of the last hospitals in south Fresno
If the VA moves the majority of its hospital functions to Clovis, it would be following a trend of other medical facilities that have moved north, creating an opportunity for developers to build new suburban neighborhoods nearby, stretching the resources of cities.
In 1975, Saint Agnes Hospital moved from its original location in the Tower District to Herndon and Millbrook avenues in northeast Fresno. In 1996, Valley Children’s Hospital moved from its location at Shields and Millbrook avenues in central Fresno to land donated by developer Richard Gunner in southern Madera County, which is adjacent to the donor’s planned Gunner Ranch West development.
Community Medical Centers has expanded significantly in Clovis, beyond its flagship downtown Fresno campus, and in 2017, purchased land from the McCaffrey family next to their Tesoro Viejo development on Highway 41 in Madera County.
Councilmember Bessinger said that Clovis has been actively working to create a medical hub along East Herndon Avenue consisting of the Clovis Community hospital and the Community Cancer Center (part of the Community Regional Medical Centers network), Kaiser Permanente, Central Valley Indian Health and the California Health Sciences University.
“If you need something medically, you can come to Clovis,” Bessinger said.
That’s easy enough if you have a working car, or live in north Fresno or Clovis.
“Clovis isn’t an easy place to get to unless you’re car dependent,” said Dr. Tania Pacheco-Werner, co-director at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State and a member of the California Air Resources Board.
She said that consideration should also be given to what happens to the existing neighborhood. “When you move entire entities like this, you’re uprooting a symbiotic system that depends on you — the gas stations, the local restaurants, the medical clinics nearby.”
Access to health care identified as major barrier
Access to health care remains a top concern for many Fresno County residents, especially people who live in lower-income, predominantly Latino or Asian communities. A 2020 Community Health Needs Assessment prepared by the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State, the Fresno County Health Improvement Partnership and the Fresno County Department of Public Health identified public transportation as a top priority.
Participants in the study who identified as vulnerable groups said that a lack of reliable transportation has impaired their ability to access health care in an emergency.
A national survey by the Rand Corporation found that only 25% of veterans live within a 60-minute transit time to any VA facility, and only 6% live within a 60-minute transit time to a VA facility with full specialty care.
In response to a wave of criticism over the lack of health care access, the VA changed policy in 2019 to allow veterans who live more than a 30-minute drive from a VA facility to choose private care.
The closest transit stop to the Clovis site purchased by the VA is 1.1 miles away.
“We already have a severe doctor shortage,” said Pacheco-Werner. “And we’re looking to move more medical facilities out to suburban sprawl?”
Fresnoland Documenter Heather Halsey Martinez contributed to this story.