November 11, VCS in the News: New Austin VA Clinic to Serve Growing Veteran Population

Austin American-Statesman

“Opening a larger facility in Austin is very good for our veterans and their families,” Sullivan said, “especially given the increase in demand for care due to patients from all wars flooding into VA.”  

November 11, 2008 – As he leaned against a pillar in front of Austin’s veterans clinic, Larry Martino needed maybe a second to absorb news that a new clinic is in the works.

“Good,” said Martino, a 60-year-old Vietnam War veteran with thick glasses, a University of Texas T-shirt and a cane that helps him walk on a recently replaced knee. “I’ve been coming here two years now, and I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of patients. They don’t have enough space; even the doctors don’t have enough space.”

Other patients reacted similarly to word that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs , which runs the Austin clinic, is planning to build a new facility to deal with the area’s growing population of veterans, whose contributions will be celebrated today, Veterans Day.

About 21,000 veterans from 10 counties now seek medical care at the Southeast Austin clinic, a one-story building that sits where East Oltorf Street dead-ends at Montopolis Drive.

By 2025, that number is expected to reach 30,000.

The VA has set aside $18.5 million for a new clinic, which local officials said was secured by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. The new clinic will be about three times as large as the Montopolis building, which will still be used by the VA. The new clinic is scheduled to open in 2012.

The VA is deciding between two Austin locations. Local officials said they could not release specifics until one is selected in December; regardless, plans call for it to be the largest VA clinic in the nation.

Most surgeries and overnight stays will still be handled 68 miles north of Austin, at the VA hospital in Temple, which is the hub of the VA’s Central Texas arm because of its proximity to Fort Hood. But the new Austin clinic will allow the addition of some new services, VA officials say.

The Montopolis facility is crowded. Cars sometimes park in the grass, and before some building renovations freed up space, patients at times had to circle for 45 minutes in the morning looking for a spot. Tandy Kinard, one of the clinic’s patient advocates, said the scramble among staff to find work space is sometimes resolved by time sharing.

The clinic is also seeing a range of new issues. The World War II veterans are dying, but a wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets now rely on the VA. As of May, about 837,000 troops who had left the military had served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and 39 percent had already sought VA care, according to a VA report obtained by advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense.

The report concluded those numbers will rise, although no one can say with certainty by how much.

Ryan Crunk, a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran from Kerrville, is among those who could be seeking VA care for decades. Now an Austin Community College student with plans to attend Texas A&M University, Crunk registered with the Austin clinic Friday, talking as a nurse wrapped an elastic band around his arm and began drawing blood.

“They got me in quick,” said Crunk, who spoke in a deep voice and shook hands with a vise-like grip. He wore a trim red-brown beard, camo shorts and sandals, one of which was strapped to the plastic foot at the end of his prosthetic right leg. He chose the prosthetic after doctors could not repair the damage caused by a nail-covered grenade that tore into his leg on the day of Iraq’s first post-Saddam Hussein election, in 2005 .

“I have zero complaints with the health care I’ve received,” Crunk said, including the year he went to the VA’s Kerrville clinic. “Everything I’ve needed, from psychological help to physical pain relief, I’ve gotten.”

Paul Sullivan, a VA critic and head of Veterans for Common Sense, said the new clinic is a needed step.

“Opening a larger facility in Austin is very good for our veterans and their families,” Sullivan said, “especially given the increase in demand for care due to patients from all wars flooding into VA.”

Austin clinic director Greg Vrentas could not say what the average wait time is at the Austin clinic. But Vrentas, a retired Special Forces operative who oversaw the rebuilding of medical facilities in Afghanistan, said every patient gets an appointment within 30 days , as the VA requires. He said the new facility will help cut wait times and expand services.

“Whatever way a vet needs help,” Vrentas said, “we try to provide it.”

To free up space, Vrentas had the clinic’s mental health unit moved recently to the Southgate building, at Oltorf Street and Interstate 35. The move created room for a women’s clinic, which is scheduled to open in a few weeks.

Women now make up about 15 percent of the fighting force and 14 percent of the veteran population. Minnie Bowie-Garcia , the Austin clinic’s women’s program coordinator, said 1,800 women in Austin have enrolled with the VA.

The VA has also started a home care program that tends to patients across Central Texas who are too frail or otherwise incapable of regular clinic visits. It cares for 34 patients now and should have about 800 in two years, said Tim Reese, the program coordinator.

“This is not your father’s VA,” said Reese, a retired colonel who served 24 years in the Army Nurse Corps .

The Central Texas arm of the VA has had ups and downs proving that point. A recent study of VA regions ranked Central Texas 118th out of 139 in patient satisfaction. Norma Perez, a post-traumatic stress disorder coordinator in Temple, also drew a congressional inquiry after advising mental health workers in a memo to “refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out” because “we really don’t have time to do the extensive testing that should be done to determine PTSD.” And the Central Texas VA still has not determined what to do with Dr. Robert Van Boven , a VA researcher working at the University of Texas who alleges that the VA wasted millions of brain injury research dollars and says his superiors are trying to fire him for petty reasons.

But by some measures the Central Texas system’s care has improved dramatically. In 2006, it opened a world-class hospital in Waco that specializes in treating patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Four years ago , the VA ranked Central Texas 126th in overall care. Last year, despite low patient satisfaction numbers, Central Texas ranked 31st in overall care and first in accessibility.

The disparity was evident in the reactions of Callie Bradford, 54, and her father, Frank Walker, 91, who had just been prescribed medicine to lower his blood pressure.

“It’s wonderful” that the VA is planning a larger clinic, Bradford said. She said the staff is sometimes impolite, possibly as a result of the cramped quarters, and added that “maybe with a larger building, you won’t have people so crowded there’s nowhere to sit.”

“Don’t focus on the negative,” said Walker, a retired pastor and World War II veteran, patting his daughter gently on the hand. “I’m leaving (the clinic) with great joy in my heart. My health has been meticulously cared for.”

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