The new veterans medical clinic under development at the Regency Mall in White Township is slated for opening in early October, and VA representatives on Wednesday urged area veterans to embrace the sophisticated technologies to be used in patient service there.
The clinic will be a satellite of the James Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona and the first point of care for any veterans in the region who would find Indiana’s center closer to their homes. Others living west of Indiana, who are registered for care at the Pittsburgh or Butler VA centers, would need to register through the Van Zandt center to join the Indiana clinic’s patient list, said VA spokeswoman Andrea Young, of Altoona.
Young and project developer Charles “Chief” Robbins, as vice president of CRAssociates Inc. in Newington, Va., provided a progress report at the semimonthly meeting of the Indiana County board of commissioners. Plans for the clinic were announced in late June.
The clinic is estimated, at the outset, to serve 1,200 patients by a physician and a panel of support personnel — all to be hired locally, Robbins said. Over the five years that CRAssociates is contracted to operate the clinic, it is expected to serve 4,000 veterans.
The number is growing with the return of soldiers from service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Known as a C-BOC (Community Based Outpatient Clinic), the center will provide basic “office visit” doctor care but also use online technology to have off-site specialists examine, diagnose and recommend treatment in certain areas.
“Right now it’s the basic primary care platform, and as enrollment develops, they will have tele-psych, tele-podiatry and tele-dermatology,” Robbins said. “As the system expands, they will reach out to the local community to outsource a lot of needs rather than have veterans drive all over.”
Robbins said tele-medicine is a growing private-sector trend that the VA is adopting.
“It saves a lot of money, it’s still very efficient, and it has worked all over the country, ranging from the Mayo Clinic to the Department of Defense.” Robbins said.
“VA has been growing the telehealth program over the last three or four years,” Young said. “A lot of our veterans, particularly our older veterans, didn’t want anything to do with it. They wanted a podiatrist to look at their feet in person. But (they accepted it) once they found how easy and convenient it was — instead of driving to Pittsburgh or Altoona, or waiting to get an appointment in the community on a fee basis.
“We have a technician that is with the patient in the room and the practitioner is on the telehealth, and there is a lot of equipment used like special cameras. So it’s not like watching someone on a video screen. And people have become very comfortable with it after they’ve used it a couple of times.”
Young said online mental health care through the VA also is growing.
“We’re still figuring out how the behavioral heath sessions will be,” Young said. “Telepsychiatry has been done pretty regularly in the VA. The technician will be with the patient in the room and the psychiatrist will discuss any issues and be used for medical purposes. That’s a medication consultation.
“But when it comes to group therapies or individual therapies, that’s something new that a lot of patients will have to get used to. We are getting pretty good running those activities through telehealth; it’s a matter of the patients becoming comfortable with that.”
Robbins told local officials Wednesday that the program is open to using services already available in Indiana.
“In terms of the specialty care, I agree that it will expand. Each one of the specialties has to be analyzed. For example, X-rays — in our contract, we have to send X-rays to the Altoona medical center. But they are very open to talking about … for convenience and travel time, contracting with the local hospital for obvious common-sense reasons, for X-rays. But each discipline will be analyzed, not only for cost but for convenience to the veteran.”
Robbins said his company has taken a “very aggressive” approach to develop the clinic and place it in operation. CRAssociates is renovating about 8,200 square feet of floor space formerly occupied by the Rex appliance store.
“We’re on the fast track,” Young said. “There’s a lot of work being done at the site already.”
Rod Ruddock, chairman of the commissioners, said the development of the veterans’ clinic in Indiana comes at an important time.
“The excitement I have with this project is the timing of it. It’s coming on the heels of some very difficult moments for the VA,” Ruddock said. “It’s clear that it’s an issue that has to be fixed. It’s obvious that action already has been taken to repair some damage that has been done, reaching into Proctor & Gamble to bring on leadership that has a business acumen.”
Ruddock was referring to the nomination of corporate executive Robert McDonald as secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
McDonald is a former Army Ranger who was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the national VA after revelations of widespread treatment delays and falsified records to cover up months-long waits for appointments.
McDonald’s business expertise “coupled with his background as a military officer … and through his leadership, we’re going to see a transition,” Ruddock said. “The VA will run certain elements that they do well but privatize a lot of the support systems that make more sense in a community like Indiana.”
Young said the VA is eager to help veterans to learn whether they qualify for care at the clinic.
“We’re looking for a lot of veterans who are not yet receiving care to enroll here,” Young said. “It has been a difficult time for people who have lost health insurance or lost jobs. I would encourage anybody, even those who have applied and been turned down in the past, to reapply once this clinic gets started.
“There are certain criteria you have to meet. … If you were a prisoner of war, you are eligible for VA health care. If you were in Vietnam, there are certain things that make you eligible for health care.”
The center is scheduled to operate 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and to be closed on federal holidays. Robbins said the schedule may be changed to offer evening hours. Former servicemen and -women may contact the Veterans Affairs Office at the county courthouse at (724) 465-3815 for more information.