Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 16, 2013

Mercer veterans getting mobile health clinic

By CHARLES OWENS and KATY COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — In a victory for local veterans, area lawmakers confirmed Monday that a new mobile health clinic will be stationed out of and remain in Mercer County.

The new mobile veterans clinic is in addition to a telemedicine clinic that will be added this fall to the existing veterans center in Princeton, according to 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.

Both Manchin and Rahall called the Daily Telegraph Monday to discuss the two projects.

“It’s a Mercer County veterans clinic to be stationed in Mercer County,” Manchin said of the mobile unit, which will be fully self-contained with two exam rooms, a waiting area and restroom. “It will be worked out of Princeton. That is its home base. It can be a permanent base, or they can move it around to help (other veterans). But that will be decided by the Princeton Veterans Center. Al Hancock really worked so hard — and God love him — he never gave up. I said that’s ours. It stays in Mercer County. We can use it all over Mercer County.”

Rahall agreed that the mobile unit would be stationed out of Mercer County.

“We’ve all pressed the VA repeatedly to assess the situation in Mercer County and pursue partnerships with local facilities,” Rahall said. “This is obviously a positive development for veterans in Mercer County. It (the mobile unit) is truly a state-of-the art facility.”

“I’ve always told our veterans I would stop at nothing to make sure they could get the care they rightly deserve and so bravely earned,” Rockefeller added in a prepared statement. “I’m glad the VA heard our concerns and acted. Now veterans in Mercer County will have more immediate access to critical primary and mental health care service. Our veterans should never have to travel for miles and miles to get the care and support they need — and deserve. This is a great day for our veterans in Mercer County and I know there are more ahead.”

Both Rahall and Manchin said the mobile clinic and tele-health center won’t preclude Mercer County from one day also having a stand-alone outpatient clinic for veterans.

“It will be in place of the brick and mortar (facility) — we’ll see how it works out,” Manchin said. “It might be more permanent than brick and mortar, or more effective than brick and mortar. But it doesn’t (preclude Mercer from a stand-alone clinic). They are going to evaluate the effectiveness. It doesn’t take (Mercer) out of contention.”

The mobile clinic will also be able to maintain access to electronic records through satellite technology. Rahall said the delivery of the mobile unit — which resembles a large bus — will take about six to eight months. The tele-health facility that will be added to the existing Princeton Veterans Center on Mercer Street will open in the fall. It 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 allow local veterans to speak with and consult with specialty physicians over the Internet. But in other instances, doctors will be on site to assist the online doctor, Manchin said.

“A specialist can talk and work with a doctor on the ground,” Manchin said. “It’s pretty detailed. It’s more than just computers. It’s more hands on.”

Hancock, a local veterans advocate who has been fighting for a free-standing veterans clinic for 17 years, said the mobile clinic and tele-health center could help service some of the needs of local veterans.

“The Veterans Administration has made the decision that what is needed for the veterans of this area is what is called ‘tele-health,’” Hancock, a retired Air Force veteran, said. “When I talked to Sen. Joe Manchin Friday he kind of convinced me this was the route to go for now. This is not what I’ve been fighting for the past 17 years, but they keep telling me this is a foot in the door. We are going to give it our best shot. I have toured one of these mobile units before and they are very impressive.”

Hancock said it will be important for local veterans across the region to utilize the new facilities, including the mobile unit and tele-health center.

“I just hope the veterans of this area will use it or we will lose it,” Hancock said. “I understand if we don’t utilize it they will move the mobile unit some other place. I have been working to get an outpatient clinic for more than 17 years. This unit is not what I expected, but these services will help us when the clinic is around Princeton.”  

Though a mobile clinic will improve services, Hancock said not all of the services veterans need will be available at the facility.

“We still have to go to the VA hospital from time to time,” he said. “I don’t think they will have all the equipment for every issue, so we will still have to go to the hospital.”

Hancock said he and others will also continue to fight for a stand-alone clinic for the area. But until that becomes a reality, he hopes local veterans will use the mobile health care center in large numbers to show the Veterans Administration the need for a freestanding clinic in the area.

“I am still going to fight for a stand-alone clinic and hopefully that will come to fruition,” Hancock said. “I hope we do get some utilization out of the mobile clinic and show the Veterans Administration that we are flexible, regardless of what they say. If the mobile clinic is highly utilized or if the mobile clinic is overrun with people seeking its help, they might see the need for a stand-alone clinic.”

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com