The health campus in downtown Camden continued its expansion yesterday, as officials announced the creation of a new medical clinic for military veterans.
Come spring, veterans in the Camden County area will no longer have to travel to Philadelphia, Fort Dix or Sewell in Gloucester County for physical and mental-health services.
Instead, they will come to Camden, which is fast becoming South Jersey's medical hub. A new Cooper University Hospital patient pavilion will open this week, and there are plans for a medical school across the street from the veterans clinic.
"Coming here is going to be a delight," said Bob Richter, a veteran from Oaklyn who attended the announcement ceremony in the lobby of Cooper's new $220 million pavilion.
The clinic will occupy more than 5,000 square feet on the first floor of a Cooper parking garage on Broadway, around the corner from a public transportation hub.
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs will rent the space from the Camden County Improvement Authority, the economic-development wing of the county government that built and owns the $33 million garage.
When the garage opened in September 2007, county officials announced plans to put stores on the ground floor in an effort to make blighted Broadway more pedestrian friendly.
Officials said yesterday the clinic does not represent a change in strategy or abandonment of that plan.
"An opportunity presented itself to occupy the space with a service beneficial to both the county and veterans," said Louis Cappelli, county freeholder director. "We were open to any idea."
Opening next to the veterans clinic will be a therapy center run by NovaCare Rehabilitation.
"We left our options open all along the way," said James Blanda, the authority's deputy executive director. "We were trying to find the best use there, and I think we got that."
About 10 percent of the space has yet to be leased, he said.
The clinic will focus on mental health and primary care, and the staff will include two doctors and two nurse practitioners.
New federal guidelines allowed the VA to open an annex to its main West Philadelphia facility, which is operating above capacity, said Richard S. Citron, director of the Philadelphia VA's medical center.
New veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are not straining these services, Citron said. Instead, aging Vietnam War-era soldiers are increasingly seeking treatment for chronic conditions.
"We've taken on the role of family physician for many veterans," he said.
About half have minimal to no medical insurance, and at the VA facilities they pay little for co-payments.
The lease has yet to be officially signed, so officials did not release financial details of the agreement. The facility is scheduled to open in the spring.
Officials said the credit for bringing the clinic to Camden goes to James Beach, the Camden County clerk who is expected to replace State Sen. John Adler after Adler is sworn in as a Democratic congressman next month. "What we've done is fill another storefront to help make Broadway the thriving thoroughfare it once was," said Beach.
Cooper and the veterans clinic will not have a formal relationship, and there are no plans to share services or doctors, Citron said.
An honor guard of veterans representing the branches of the military opened yesterday's event, and Cooper officials, including George Norcross, chairman of the board of trustees, presided over the announcement.
City officials were not present.