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Military healthcare comes to ‘burbs

Times Staff Writer

Tucked in the corner of the expansive Santee Town Center shopping complex is the latest innovation in military healthcare: a fully staffed outpatient clinic for military members, their families and veterans.

Most military medicine is dispensed at the region’s larger bases, including the hospital at Camp Pendleton and the massive Naval Medical Center in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Add to that list a sprinkling of clinics in civilian medical buildings.

But the two buildings in Santee, a joint effort by the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments, are the first free-standing local clinics.

A 6,500-square-foot main building with 10 examination rooms and two treatment rooms, and a 2,500-square-foot pharmacy building are part of the sprawling Santee complex, which also includes a Wal-Mart and other stores. Construction costs topped $3.2 million for the medical buildings.

“It doesn’t feel like a government institution,” Rear Adm. Brian G. Brannman, commander of the San Diego medical center, said at Tuesday’s grand opening. “It feels like a place where you want to come and have your family taken care of -- and that’s the idea.”

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The goal is to keep patients from having to travel to the San Diego hospital, where parking and scheduling are tight. With its lower housing costs, east San Diego County is home to a growing number of military families.

Capt. David A. Tam, deputy commander of the medical center, said the idea for a local clinic came from watching sailors leave base to dash home to pick up a child in east county and then race back to the San Diego hospital for an appointment.

An advisory group of retirees and others had a hand in the planning, suggesting a soothing color scheme, TVs in waiting rooms and a child-care center. An emphasis was put on immediacy.

“People want service when they walk in,” said Navy retiree John Sadler of nearby Lakeside.

These are busy times for military medicine.

Already the busiest military hospital in the country, the medical center in Balboa Park has increased its services to help Marines, sailors and others wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. It recently opened the military’s only center for amputee care in the western U. S. And after the hospital ship Mercy’s two successful humanitarian deployments to nations in the Western Pacific, the Pentagon has decided not to mothball the San Diego-based ship. More such missions are being planned.

Santee has long been a favorite of young military families because of its moderate rents.

The city takes pride in being military-friendly.

“You go to our restaurants and all you see are short haircuts, lots of high-and-tights,” said Mayor Randy Voepel, using slang for the hairstyles required of Marines.

Voepel, who served two tours in Vietnam while in the Navy, estimates that a third or more of the city’s 56,000 residents are active-duty or retirees and their family members. The city has “adopted” two military units: an infantry battalion from Camp Pendleton and a helicopter squadron from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

Santee is home to Joe Browning, a senior aide to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. At the ceremony Tuesday, Browning suggested the clinic was the product of three influences: Hunter, Santee and the Balboa Park hospital.

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tony.perry@latimes.com


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