Rep. Ed Case is renewing calls for the Army to fix the long-standing parking problem at Tripler Army Medical Center, but the military doesn’t appear to have a plan to do so.
Tripler is overseen by the Army but consists of facilities and offices from several agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs regional office.
The facility has long drawn complaints about insufficient parking availability that forces some patients including aging and disabled veterans to park far away, sometimes even off the sprawling guarded compound.
Congress plans to direct “the military to address the parking shortage at the Tripler Army Medical Center” in its military construction and veterans affairs funding bill, according to a press release earlier this month from Case’s office.
The provision followed a call in last year’s funding measure for the Secretary of the Army and the Defense Health Agency to submit a joint report to Congress with potential locations and cost estimates for parking improvements at the hospital.
Around 450,000 beneficiaries are eligible to receive care at the facility, which has a work force of about 4,000 troops and civilians. It should have some 6,000 parking spaces but has only just over 3,700, Case’s office said last year.
The military, meanwhile, has been reluctant to talk about its plans to address the parking problems. Officials have blamed a lack of congressional funding, potential environmental concerns and legal restrictions for the lack of progress.
Tripler spokeswoman Mackenzie Walsh said hospital officials provided a parking assessment to the Office of the Surgeon General in April but the hospital doesn’t have the authority to address the problem.
“By law, we cannot build a parking structure separate from the construction of a health care facility and any long-term parking remedies would need to be part of larger recapitalization plans within a MILCON (military construction) project,” Walsh said in an email.
But when asked about it last year, Tripler officials said they were in the process of drawing up plans but those would be “contingent upon congressional appropriation.”
When asked for more detail, Army officials first directed questions to the Army Materiel Command, which then referred questions to the Army Medical Command. Army Medical Command did not respond to questions about whether there are any proposed plans or cost estimates for improving Tripler’s parking.
A draft of the fiscal year 2022 spending bill for military construction and veterans affairs, which still needs to be approved by the full House, included a provision for $1.6 billion “for constructing, altering, extending, and improving any of the facilities, including parking projects, under the jurisdiction or for the use of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
But it’s unclear if Tripler would receive any of those funds.
The draft was approved by the House Appropriations committee in June and will go to a floor vote later this year.
Complaints go back decades. Thousands of visitors and patients visit Tripler every week, often exceeding the parking capacity. It’s not uncommon for patients to park on the grass or even outside of the gates, which are guarded by active duty soldiers that check visitors’ identification.
And getting to the facility is a longer journey for some patients than others. Some of the patients actually reside on other islands.
The VA’s Pacific Island Healthcare System is responsible for providing services to veterans across Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
In October 2019, Case wrote a letter to Tripler’s then-commander Col. Mary Kruger asking “for a specific explanation of efforts” to improve parking for veterans and active duty service members going to Tripler and Matsunaga.
“Veterans and service members throughout Hawaii have repeatedly raised concerns to me about the difficulty of finding parking at both facilities,” Case said. “These parking issues are particularly difficult for elderly veterans, wounded soldiers and those who have difficulty walking unassisted or up hill.”
He also asked for the military’s assessment of the parking situation, any proposed plans and cost estimates for a parking garage or other improvements along with assessments on how that could fit into larger military construction plans.
The following year Case and fellow lawmakers asked the Army to deliver a report along with potential solutions and price estimates.
The report was supposed to be delivered 180 days after the bill went into law. Nestor Garcia, a spokesman for Case, said that Congress is still “awaiting that report.”
The facility has taken some steps to alleviate the strain, including a shuttle system. Tripler leadership has also encouraged staff and patients to carpool when possible and there has been a move toward telemedicine amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The VA’s Pacific Island Healthcare system has also been pushing for more in-person treatment beyond Tripler’s grounds through partnerships with hospitals and other clinics throughout Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Island territories. However, some of those partnerships have come with problems of their own.
On Tuesday the VA announced that this fall it would begin taking patients at its new Windward VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic at the Castle Medical Office Building to serve veterans along the Windward Coast from Kahuku to Waimanalo.
“This will minimize visits to TAMC” for veterans who wish to transfer over “unless specific services are only available here,” the VA said.
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Kevin Knodell reports on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.