By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Local lawmakers are happy to see the Veterans Administration hospital in Raleigh County expand, but they hope this will not stop the effort to open a veterans outpatient clinic in Mercer County.
Ground was broken Monday at the Beckley VA Medical Center for a pair of new projects designed to enhance patient care. One project includes an 8,000-square-foot building adjacent to the main medical center. The $5.8 million structure will be used to expand an adult day care health care program and house programs such as community health and coordinating home telehealth.
The second project is a 2,300-square-foot, second-floor deck suite. The $4.4 million structure will house a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Both projects are tentatively scheduled for completion in early fall 2014.
Local veterans and Mercer County’s representatives in the legislature commented on the Raleigh County expansion Tuesday, and how it could impact Mercer County.
“It probably has good points, it probably has bad points,” Al Hancock of Bluefield, an Air Force veteran and local veterans advocate, said of the Beckley project. “The rumor has been going around for quite a few years that they want to do this telehealth project in the area. Now, the telehealth is really more like when you sit in front of a TV screen and you talk to someone, a doctor or whatever. It’s my understanding that it’s geared more toward mental health where they ask you how you’re feeling.”
Hancock said he did not like the telehealth concept because he would prefer to see a physician in person.
“The bad thing about it is that it’s not hands on,” he stated. “If I want to talk to a doctor, I want to go to an office somewhere where I’m sitting down in front of a doctor and he’s seeing me, not a TV screen.”
Hancock said much of what is needed to open a veterans outpatient clinic in Mercer County is available. Space is available at Princeton Community Hospital and a local foundation is willing to provide equipment.
“All we need now is permission from the Veterans Administration. That is the hold up,” Hancock said.
Hancock added that he receives “outstanding care” at the VA Medical Center in Beckley, but transportation from Mercer County and back again is often a problem. In some instances, veterans who use a VA bus to reach the Beckley center have to wait hours for their appointment and hours before they can go home.
For example, a veteran who has an 8 a.m. appointment and one with a 1 p.m. appointment may have to travel on the same bus, Hancock said. Then they have to wait until everybody has been seen before they can return to Mercer County.
Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said he was encouraged that the VA in Beckley was being expanded, but he would also like to see a clinic in Mercer County.
“I hope that the fact that Beckley is expanding doesn’t end the conversation about opening the clinic in Princeton,” Cole said. “In partnership with Princeton Community Hospital, they’ve been offered a wing of the hospital, which makes it virtually a no brainer.”
Having a Mercer County clinic would save many veterans the task of having to drive to Beckley whenever they need medical services, Cole said.
“I think it’s important for us to continue to try and work on that clinic in Princeton,” he added. “Marty Gearheart and I have had meetings with Washington representatives. All they (VA) has to do is staff Princeton. With all the money we waste in Washington (D.C.), surely we can come up with a few dollars for a worthy cause like this.”
Princeton Community Hospital CEO Wayne Griffith said Tuesday that the hospital still has space for a veterans clinic, and would be willing to speak with the Veterans Administration about the space and ancillary services such as X-rays.
Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, said he did not understand why a clinic has not been approved by the VA.
“I would love to tell you that I understood the logic of the VA and how they decide to locate facilities, but I do not,” Gearheart said. “I think the clinic in Mercer County would be pretty well revenue neutral; not a whole lot of money would go into it.”
“Essentially, it’s a matter of somebody at the VA deciding to let go, and it’s beyond me to understand why they haven’t,” Gearheart added. “We have encouraged a number of people both in our district and outside our area on the federal level to get this accomplished, and they haven’t been able to do so at this point.”
Gearheart said that he and other state elected officials would “frequently” speak to federal representatives about the clinic project.
“I would say personally, I think it’s good they’re doing that to help the VA hospital there,” Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer said of the Beckley project. “However, if they are putting their efforts into that hospital, it could be a setback to our efforts in Mercer County. I don’t want to promote stuff to the determent of the hospital in Beckley, but I would like to see both coexist.”
“Funds are tight now, so spending millions of dollars at the Beckley VA hospital could make it difficult to free more money for the Mercer County clinic,” Ellington said.
Marc Meachum, president of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, said both the expansion at the Beckley VA facility and a veterans clinic in Mercer County are necessary.
“Both projects are needed. There’s not a question about that or they wouldn’t be doing it in Beckley, but that expansion doesn’t change the situation with the veterans here, and their inconvenience in having to travel to Beckley for very, very basic care,” Meachum said.
Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer was unavailable for comment Tuesday.