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El Paso VA Health Care System breaks ground for new mental health clinic

By MADLIN MEKELBURG | The El Paso Times | Published: August 15, 2018

AUSTIN (Tribune News Service) — The El Paso Veterans Affairs Health Care System on Wednesday broke ground on the VA Wellness Center, one of two new clinics for veterans expected to open in the community by the end of 2019.

Officials with the health care system, the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation and U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke gathered near Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso on Wednesday to mark the start of construction on the $16 million mental health clinic.

"This is not only a great way for El Paso to address outstanding mental health care needs for veterans, but it's a great way for El Paso to provide an example for the country as to how to work with limited resources to make sure we're delivering care for our veterans," O'Rourke said in an interview Monday.

"This is really something special we're going to be celebrating on Wednesday," the El Paso Democrat said.

Construction of the VA Wellness Center is part of an ongoing effort to improve how the El Paso VA Health Care System provides care to the more than 7,000 veterans in the region.

The clinic was first proposed in 2015 as part of a pilot program introduced by O'Rourke to reform the system to prioritize care for service-related conditions and promote partnerships between the VA and local health care providers.

The program, developed by O'Rourke and local health providers, sought to address the El Paso VA Health Care System's long wait times, which have been ranked among the longest in the country.

The average wait time for an appointment varies by location and specialty. Over the past month, the average wait time for a new, primary-care patient to get an appointment at the main VA Medical Center in El Paso was 23 days, according to the VA's website that tracks wait times.

O'Rourke said the system has made progress in hiring more mental-health providers and establishing relationships with community members, but the lack of space at existing facilities remains a challenge.

Care system's space limitations create challenges

"One of my most significant challenges since I arrived has been space limitations," retired Army Col. Michael Amaral, director of the El Paso VA Health Care System, said at Wednesday's ceremony. "This physical limitation has made it extremely challenging to expand needed services, not only within the area of mental health, but other services as well."

The VA is leasing the new clinic buildings, which are being constructed by private contractors. The Medical Center of the Americas Foundation won a bid to build the new medical center, which will be leased to the VA for 20 years.

Emma Schwartz, MCA Foundation president, said the new clinic will have more than 160 employees, including psychiatrists, psychologists and nurse practitioners. The clinic will primarily offer mental health care, but Schwartz said there will be some primary care services available as well.

"The more emphasis we can have on mental health and wellness, bringing that to light and making more services available, helps our entire community," Schwartz said in an interview, adding that the El Paso community as a whole is "medically underserved."

"This will definitely help to alleviate some of that," she said.

The new clinic will be near the MCA Foundation's Cardwell Collaborative biomedical technology incubator building, which houses the MCA's "tech park."

State Rep. César Blanco, a U.S. Navy veteran who represents part of El Paso, said he hopes the new clinic will help veterans in the region receive care for mental health issues that commonly go untreated.

"We owe our veterans access to quality care and we must continuously strive to deliver that," he said in a statement. "Today's groundbreaking is a monumental step forward in increasing access to care for our veteran population here at home, especially in the area of mental health services."

In addition to the VA Wellness Center, the VA also is planning to open a West Side clinic in the Northwest Corporate Center industrial park by the end of next year.

The entire system, which includes a clinic in Las Cruces, has about 900 employees and an annual budget of $260 million.

In 2017, the system treated more than 31,000 patients in over 300,000 visits.

A quick look at the VA clinic

Scheduled completion date: September 2019

Location: Medical Center of the Americas campus in South-Central El Paso

Size: 33,000 square feet

Cost: roughly $16 million

General programs to be offered at clinic: general mental health; psychological assessments; individual, family; couples and group therapy, evidence-based psychotherapy; PTSD/depression/anxiety and other disorder programs; medication evaluation; medication management

Specialty programs to be offered at clinic: monitored treatment program; substance use disorders program; and post-traumatic stress disorder

Planned staff for clinic: More than 160 psychiatrists, tele-psychiatrists, psychologists, tele-psychologists, peer specialists, additional therapists, social workers and residents from Texas Tech Health Sciences Center El Paso

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©2018 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
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