Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 24, 2013

Although victory was declared, the fight continues for local veterans

By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— The fight is far from over for local veterans seeking health care services closer to home. As they continue their struggle for a stand-alone outpatient clinic, they must now also fight to ensure that a new state-of-the-art mobile clinic coming to the area is fully utilized by veterans across the region. That includes both Mercer and McDowell counties.

 The mobile clinic, along with a new tele-health clinic that will be added this fall to the existing Princeton Veterans Center on Mercer Street in Princeton, were both announced last week by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Although not the actual brick-and-mortar facility they were seeking, the addition of the mobile center and tele-health center nevertheless represents a victory for area veterans. Al Hancock, a local veterans advocate and retired Air Force veteran, is to be specifically credited for all of his hard work in helping to make these latest developments a reality. Hancock has been fighting for an outpatient veterans clinic in Mercer County for more than 17 years now.

Hancock has been the leader, and a vocal advocate, for this very worthwhile cause. And he’s been able to rally veterans across the region behind the campaign. But he’s also been busy writing numerous letters and making countless phone calls to the offices of Rahall, Rockefeller and Manchin as part of his 17-year-old crusade.

A partial victory is now within sight. The Veterans Administration estimates it will take six to eight months for the new mobile clinic to arrive. So based upon that calculation the mobile health center should be here early next year. The tele-health center will be added this fall. Both Manchin and Rahall — when specifically asked by the Daily Telegraph last week — said the mobile clinic will be stationed in Princeton, and largely remain in the Mercer County area. But in order to ensure that the mobile unit does in fact remain stationed in Mercer County full time, area veterans will have to make use of the facility in large numbers.

And why shouldn’t they? Traveling to Princeton — or wherever in Mercer County the mobile unit may be stationed on a given week — is a lot easier than traveling to Beckley. And no turnpike tolls will be required in order to reach your destination. The same goes for the new tele-health center to be developed inside of the existing vet center. As Hancock puts it, area veterans will have to “use it or lose it.”

The mobile unit will be fully self-contained with two exam rooms, a waiting area and restroom. It will also be able to maintain access to electronic records through satellite technology. The tele-health facility will provide tele-mental health services and access to a variety of specialty consultative services including tele-dermatology, gynecology, general surgery and a weight management program. The tele-health facility will essentially allow local veterans to speak with and consult with specialty physicians over the Internet. But in other instances, local doctors could be on site at the veterans center to assist the online doctor.

Long story short, many of the health care needs of area veterans will be met closer to home at either the mobile unit or the tele-health center. But the veterans will still have to travel to Beckley at times — and pay those dreaded tolls in the process — for other specialized services that can only be provided in person by the VA Hospital in Beckley.

Hancock also believes that if large numbers of veterans from Mercer and McDowell counties utilize the new facilities in Princeton, it will help convince the VA of the need for a stand-alone brick-and-mortar facility in Mercer County. And he is correct. The burden does now shift to area veterans. It’s up to them to fully utilize the new facilities once they are up and running, and clearly illustrate the need for a larger, stand-alone clinic.

In the meantime, it is great to see that after years of asking and countless news articles and editorials on the topic — and I do mean years — that Washington has finally listened to the plea of local veterans. It goes to show that if you remain vocal — and continue the good fight — your voice will eventually be heard. And if you keep asking long enough, local lawmakers will eventually act.

That’s what happened last week in Mercer County. It’s one of those rare victories for the region. And we’ll take such a victory whenever we can get one. And this is a great win for veterans.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.