The bricks have been laid, the walls are up and the roof is in place. The heavy lifting is over.
The new Veterans Affairs clinic, near the Nittany Mall on East College Avenue, is almost completed, according to VA spokeswoman Andrea Young.
Crews are in the process of finishing the interior, working on the the framing and building out the electrical, mechanical and architectural work.
And the workers and patients of the old VA clinic, on Enterprise Drive in Ferguson Township, are ready for the move.
“The people who work in our current State College office are just busting at the seams,” Young said, “because it’s getting pretty crowded trying to help all our veterans.”
The building process has taken about two years, she said, from design to permitting to construction. The VA anticipates a move-in date between Feb. 26 and March 1 with an expected opening date of March 3.
The new clinic will have more than 13,000 square feet of usable space, she said, compared with 5,000 at the current clinic. Services to be provided will include primary care, audiology, optometry, podiatry and behavioral health.
A wider space will allow for the expansion of some services, she said, such as behavioral health. There will now be rooms available for therapy sessions to treat veterans suffering from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the biggest expected area of expansion will be in telehealth, she said. Telehealth uses video conferencing and the streaming media “to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Telehealth is becoming one of our best ways to deliver specialty health care when (a clinic) is further out from the main facility,” Young said.
Telehealth will be available for a number of areas, she said, including psychiatry, nutrition and dermatology. A majority of the communication is between a clinic, like the one in Ferguson Township, and a larger parent facility, such as the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona.
During a telehealth conference, a patient sits with a technician who runs the meeting in the State College area clinic, she said, and speaks with a specialist in the Altoona center. Another form of telehealth is “store and forward,” she said, in which a patient can have an image forwarded to a specialist for evaluation.
The hope is to someday be able to communicate with doctors and facilities throughout the country, she said.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, has been working on expanding telehealth for veterans for several years, according to Thompson spokesman Parish Braden.
His work includes the Servicemembers’ Telemedicine and E-Health Portability Act, which was signed into law in 2011, and the Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act, which is still under debate.
“While more must be done to remove barriers and expand access,” Thompson said in an email, “it has been encouraging to witness the Department of Veteran Affairs utilize technological advancements to improve care services for our veteran population.”
The VA clinic in Ferguson Township treated about 3,900 patients last fiscal year, Young said, with 3.6 percent growth in the patient population over the past two years.
With expanded space, that number is expected to increase.
“Right now, the most important thing in VA nationwide is giving access to care to our veterans,” she said. “We have been very lucky in Altoona; we’ve had the ability to expand our centers and that allowed us to expand access to our veterans.”