Altoona VA center expands facilities

ALTOONA – Navy veteran Barni Hodossy of Shirleysburg, who was a radio operator in the Mediterranean during the 1980s, has fought with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and bi-polar disorders and cocaine abuse.

“I wanted to crawl into a corner and die,” Hodossy said of a low point 18 months ago. “Life problems can be overwhelming.”

Although Hodossy’s basic problems preceded his time in the Navy, the VA system has helped him gain control of his destiny – even when he resisted the help – with repeated calls for him to come in for treatment.

“The VA saved my life,” Hodossy said Monday, during a break in a session with a clinical social worker at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center’s Behavioral Health building in Altoona, which is down a slope and across a parking lot from the center’s main entrance.

Next year, patients like Hodossy will have bigger and better digs closer to the main entrance, shrinking the stigma of “going down the hill,” while helping primary care doctors integrate mental health with physical health and ensuring there’s enough space to handle a predicted 40 percent increase in the number of mental health patients accessing Van Zandt in the next two decades, according to VA officials Monday at a groundbreaking for a new Behavioral Health building.

The current one – Building 7 – has about 7,000 square feet, Van Zandt Director William Mills said.

A team of 35 psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists treated more than 4,000 patients – representing more than 35,000 sessions – there last year, according to a Van Zandt news release.

The new, two-story replacement building, which will be constructed next to the building that houses Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, will have more than three times as much space, with room for 16 therapy offices and 27 treatment, conference, testing and group therapy rooms, according to the news release.

The construction project reflects the increasing recognition of the prevalence of post-traumatic stress syndrome and other mental health problems among veterans, said 9th District Rep. Bill Shuster, who spoke at the groundbreaking – and who urged everyone in the community to identify veterans needing help and then to urge them to get it.

The stigma attached to seeking help for mental issues “must be deleted from our society,” Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, said.

Presumably, that stigma has contributed to what Shuster called the “staggering” number of veteran suicides.

Twenty-two veterans per day took their lives in 2009 and 2010, according to a VA report.

A canopied walkway will connect the new building to the center complex, Mills said, explaining that practical limitations prevented an indoor connection.

The integration of behavioral health with primary care is a major VA initiative, according to Mills.

“A veteran’s mental health treatment is equally as important as his or her physical health care needs,” he stated in the new release.

Changes to integrate the services include placement of a psychiatrist in the primary care treatment area and inclusion of a doctor of pharmacy trained in mental health on the primary care staff to advise primary doctors how to prescribe psychiatric meds for patients with mild to moderate mental health issues, Mills said.

Those changes can help patients who come in with physical complaints get mental health care they also need more quickly and efficiently, he said.

The Behavioral Health building project also reflects the ongoing evolution of Van Zandt, which began in 1950 as a 200-bed inpatient facility, serving those 200 potential inpatients and no others, said Van Zandt spokeswoman Andrea Young.

Van Zandt now serves 25,000 veterans in 14 counties, with a broad menu of services, she said.

The emphasis now is on “ambulatory” rather than acute care.

Only 28 acute care beds remain. The emergency department was eliminated recently in favor of a 12-hour urgent care department.

In addition to primary care, behavioral health and physical rehabilitation, Van Zandt services now include long-term nursing care, home telehealth, physical therapy, compensated work therapy, dental care, geriatrics, patient hotel services, a homelessness program, a community living center, hospice, recreation, respite care, a senior companion program, a transportation program and services for the visually impaired, according to the VA website.