New VA outpatient clinic expands services

Staff nurse Susan Sharer works in one of the exam rooms at the new clinic.
Staff nurse Susan Sharer works in one of the exam rooms at the new clinic. CDT photo

Those who have answered the nation’s highest calling surround us. They are our co-workers, our neighbors and our friends.

There are thousands of veterans in Centre County and the surrounding area. And as that population ages, the need for medical care increases.

According to the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, approximately 4,000 veterans were treated in Centre County in 2014 during more than 16,000 outpatient visits. About half of the veterans in the county are 65 years old or older, with more than a quarter between the ages of 45 and 64.

To meet the demands of Centre County’s veteran population, the Van Zandt Outpatient Clinic opened its doors March 3. Located off East College Avenue, the new clinic replaces the old, smaller clinic on Enterprise Drive.

“It’s bigger, compared to the old building,” registered nurse Susan Sharer said. “We’ve had people who actually think it’s a hospital.”

The average age of a veteran in the U.S. is 58 years old, according to the VA. Sharer said the clinic has seen patients as old as 90.

While the clinic treats patients of all generations, VA spokeswoman Andrea Young said, there are several programs that prove popular with the older veterans.

Featured at the clinic are several forms of telehealth, she said — enabling a patient and care provider to communicate via video camera. This allows healthcare providers in different hospitals in and outside of the state to conference and assist patients who otherwise would not be able to make the journey.

“A lot of patients really like it because they sometimes come from an hour from where we are,” telehealth clinical technician Peggy Loring said. “So instead of taking a whole day off of work, they can come here.”

Telehealth conferencing allows for a wide range of services, Young said. Nutritional counseling, physical or occupational therapy, behavioral counseling — all can be accomplished through telehealth, in both one-on-one or group settings.

For those with chronic issues who are able to self-manage, telehealth can be accomplished through the home as well, she said.

“Home telehealth has served more than 350 patients for conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, weight management and other complex conditions,” she said.

A “Health Buddy,” a small electronic monitor, allows the patient to check his condition and give feedback on how to manage it, she said. The monitor also allows the patient to send information along to a care provider, and will help remind them when they need to check their conditions.

Telehealth doesn’t have to be a live conversation either, she said. For example, a patient can take a photograph of his or her issue, then forward the photo to a care provider.

The VA’s home-based primary care service also is used by many elderly veterans who can’t come in for care, she said. These house calls are typically made by a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant for issues like occupational or physical therapy.

More than 370 veterans enrolled in the home care program in 2014, she said, totaling more than 5,700 visits.

While the VA offers its own nursing home unit in Altoona, at 40 beds, the criteria to secure a bed is quite stringent, Young said. In cases where an elderly veteran doesn’t qualify or doesn’t want to leave the area, the VA can contract nursing home services in the community.

The VA will pay for nursing home services for qualified veterans, she said. The VA will make referrals to these homes as well.

According to Boyles, the number of visits to the clinic is expected to increase.

“A lot of times it’s not the number of patients that increase, but the number of visits because we can offer more service,” she said.

Veterans seeking service at the VA must meet certain criteria, Young said, including service and service-related disabilities.

A lot of veterans are losing their insurance, Sharer said, through job loss and changes due to the Affordable Care Act.

“Even with insurances that used to cover certain medicines, someone will go in for a refill and find the prices have skyrocketed,” she said. “Now they want to try to get their medicine through the VA.”

Many enrollees come simply to see what their options are, she said. For others, it’s their only source of healthcare.

Overall, she said, many like the new clinic. For a lot of patients, it’s closer and more convenient than the old clinic, and the availability of more services is always a plus.