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Thursday, April 13, 2006

VA's Centers of Excellence Plans Update

Good news for Rochester/Canandaigua, New York veterans: a Veterans Administration Medical Center which appeared on the VA's 2003 closure list is now set to focus on posttraumatic stress disorder treatment. When its new mission (to "become a model for post-traumatic stress disorder programs") is realized it will join VA Medical Centers in Waco, TX (which is slated to "develop national models for psychiatric rehabilitation and treatment") and San Diego, CA (which will "focus prominently on bolstering treatment for veterans just returning from war") as three 'centers of excellence' in delivering premiere medical care to our veterans.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

WHAM Channel 13 (Rochester, NY) covered it in this video report.

From the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson told a House subcommittee [last] Thursday that the V.A. Medical Center in Canandaigua will focus on ways to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Testifying before the Appropriations subcommittee on military life and veterans affairs, Nicholson disclosed only limited information about the Canandaigua facility's future. He said that as one of three mental health "centers of excellence," it will develop PTSD treatment models, especially for rural settings.

V.A. officials recommended in 2003 that the 72-year-old Canandaigua center be closed in a systemwide cost-cutting effort. But protests, a letter-writing campaign and elected officials' intervention prevented that. Former V.A. Secretary Anthony Principi promised in 2004 that a new nursing home and outpatient clinic would be built in the Canandaigua area, though not necessarily on the current campus.

Then last year, Rep. James Walsh, R-Onondaga, chairman of the subcommittee Nicholson addressed Thursday, included language in an appropriations bill directing the V.A. to establish three centers of excellence in mental health.

From the Waco Tribune-Herald:

The Waco Veterans Affairs Hospital will play an expanded role in helping returning troops transition from combat to civilian life in its new capacity as a center of excellence for mental health. As the facility continues to be considered for downsizing, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson told a congressional panel [last] Thursday that doctors at the Waco hospital will be asked to develop national models for psychiatric rehabilitation and treatment.

Although the plan does not have any direct bearing on the massive federal review of the hospital’s future, supporters cheered the development. “It’s good news for all of us who want to keep the Waco VA Hospital campus open because it shows the VA recognizes Waco’s unique strength,” said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.

Under Nicholson’s plan, the hospital will:

  • Collaborate with Department of Defense medical personnel at Fort Hood to provide additional outreach services to soldiers returning from Iraq.

  • Build on existing programs designed to help troops transition from battle to home.

  • Develop a structured approach to rehabilitating mentally ill veterans that gives patients a larger share of responsibility over their recovery program.
Congress recognized the Waco VA Hospital and two other hospitals in New York and California as centers of excellence in mental health last year, and VA administrators have been trying to decide how best to use the hospital’s new designation. “This is the first official statement from the leader of the VA saying we have specific, tangible plans for the center of excellence,” Edwards said. “It is no longer a center of excellence in name only.”

Recognizing expertise

“(Nicholson) was acknowledging our expertise in the mental health field and the programs we already have,” she said.

The center of excellence designation comes with $4 million to $6 million in new funding for the three hospitals combined, Edwards said. The resources may be an indication Nicholson isn’t ready to close the hospital, Edwards said. “This new plan that was laid out today for the first time doesn’t guarantee that the Waco hospital will remain open, but it would be awfully unusual for the VA to be committing millions of dollars in resources to Waco’s role in mental health research and services if it had a plan to shut down the entire campus,” Edwards said.

CARES study

The Waco and Canandaigua hospitals are among 18 nationwide being reviewed by federal consultants under the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services study, which means they could see downsizing or changes in their mission.

Coke Mills, a leader in the effort to keep the hospital open, said the new proposals will benefit veterans, and he implored VA officials to scrap plans to review the hospital when it has new responsibilities during the wars. “If that’s what you’re going to do, then stop this whole CARES business,” Mills said. “It’s silly to go on with it.”

Hopefully, last Thursday's comments by the VA head assures that these facilities will grow into true 'centers of excellence' in mental health. Contact your elected leaders, and let them know you're interested in seeing these plans move forward.

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