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In new $122M building, Seattle VA hospital hopes to push frontiers of medicine for PTSD, brain injuries and more

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By HAL BERNTON | The Seattle Times | Published: March 16, 2019

SEATTLE, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — The VA Puget Sound next week will open a $121.6 million building to house researchers and offer mental-health services for some 9,000 veterans. The showcase facility includes vaulted ceilings, sweeping views of the rugged Olympic Mountains and rooftop gardens that collect rainwater for reuse.

In a Friday dedication ceremony, VA officials hailed the project as a big step forward in taking care of the region’s veterans. They also set some lofty goals for pushing the frontiers of medicine in traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, prosthetics and other fields.

“This is the future,” said Dr. William Banks, an associate chief of staff at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System. “It is appropriate that this building is a green one. Green like an emerald. Because it is destined to be a crown jewel of VA research.”

The Seattle hospital first opened in 1951 on 44 acres of Beacon Hill, with the last major expansion in 1985 when a patient-care facility was added. Through the decades, the campus has emerged as a regional hub of a Puget Sound network that includes the American Lake campus south of Tacoma and seven clinics spread from Skagit to Lewis counties.

About 110,000 veterans are enrolled at the Puget Sound VA and they have made more than 1 million outpatient visits in 2018, according to VA officials.

Through the years, the Puget Sound VA also has emerged as the fifth largest research program within the national Department of Veterans Affairs system. It has been a focal point for studying PTSD and head injuries from blasts, which took on increased urgency as veterans returned from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Elaine Peskind, for example, a VA psychiatrist, has been recognized by the VA for her research into the effect of blast injuries on the brain, including the cerebellum, a part of the brain that is key to performing a wide range of tasks, including balance, walking and writing.

Peskind’s office has been in a windowless basement on Beacon Hill, while other researchers have leased offices in buildings off campus.

She will move into the new building. Others who will have new quarters include researchers involved in Alzheimer’s disease, genomics, substance abuse and lower- limb prosthetics, where researchers are experimenting with three-dimensional printing to develop custom-fit insoles that could be produced quickly and efficiently in the hospital, and it is hoped hopefully reduce the risk of diabetic patients developing ulcers and other injuries that require amputations.

The new building is opening on schedule, and with less than a 10 percent budget overrun, according to Keith Allen, the VA Puget Sound Health Care System’s deputy director.

But there were tense moments. At one point, funding for the final touches — toilet paper, soap dispensers and other essentials — appeared to dry up, according to Banks. Then, a last minute push secured the money to fully furnish the building.

This expansion of the Seattle VA campus comes at a pivotal time in the Department of Veterans Affairs history. The Trump administration — empowered by congressional legislation passed last year — is poised to expand options for veterans who seek health-care services in their communities rather than going to VA providers.

This shift “will fundamentally transform VA health care ” consolidating community-care options into a single program that is easier for veterans, their families and providers to navigate, said Michael Murphy, a VA regional director who spoke at the Friday dedication.

Even with the expanding choices, mental-health-care services are expected to continue to be a big part of the care directly provided by the VA providers to veterans.

Currently, the Puget Sound VA network offers mental-health care to about 24,000 veterans annually who make around 250,000 visits each year.

The fastest-growing hubs for those services are clinics in areas outside of the Puget Sound region, where housing often is more affordable. But some 9,000 of these veterans are seen in Seattle, which also is the only facility in the network that offers methadone treatment for opioid patients and electroconvulsive therapy, which involves brief electrical stimulation of the brain, for patients with major depression.

Staffers at the new building also will use telemedicine to help spread some of the therapies to veterans in outlying areas who can’t easily make it to the new center. In one spacious room, for example, there are plans for yoga therapy, and veterans could follow along with the class from their home, according to Jesse Markman, an acting associate chief of staff for mental health at the VA Puget Sound.

“Even this can be difficult because not every veteran lives in a house where there is broadband. But we work really hard to provide that care — our goal is to try to push the care to them if we’re able to do that,” Markham said.

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