Joe Stuhlsatz has gone to the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center for medical care for 12 years.
Since the facility at 5500 E. Kellogg Drive North opened in 1933, it has provided care to generations of veterans.
“Here in Wichita, it’s tops. I have no complaints at all,” Stuhlsatz said of the care he receives. “They really seem to want to help you. I have hearing problems and eyesight problems and everything else somebody who’s 86 years old (has).”
Stuhlsatz was 17 when he joined the Navy in 1945. He thought he would be part of the group of soldiers invading Japan, but the atomic bomb was dropped, and the war was won before a large invasion by Allied forces was ordered.
So Stuhlsatz helped bring the troops back from Europe before helping to decommission his ship.
“I’ve never seen action, but I’ve seen destruction.”
Between September 2011 and September 2012, the medical center had more than 30,000 unique patient visits. Some of its specialty services include rehabilitation, oncology and orthopedic surgery. The medical center serves veterans in a 59-county area of Kansas and has six outpatient clinics for veterans in Fort Dodge, Hays, Hutchinson, Liberal, Parsons and Salina.
“We have geriatric World War II veterans to guys still coming back from Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn,” said Phyllis Hilger, compliance and business integrity officer for the medical center.
“Our goal is to continue to take care of these veterans with the programs and staffing that we have. I think we can pull it off. It takes a lot of dedicated people and we have a lot of those.”
Veterans Health Administration is one of three major divisions of the Office of Veterans Affairs. It is responsible for providing medical care for veterans, education affiliations, research and supporting the nation in times of war or natural disaster.
Over the years, veterans hospitals have worked to find their role in an increasingly complex world of medical care while dealing with a changing array of needs among veterans.
One of the biggest recent challenges for the Wichita center has been the absence of a permanent director since May.
Various glitches in the selection process have slowed the process, officials said, and it could be another four to six months before a permanent director is hired.
The third interim director for the medical center, Kevin Inkley, began work this month. Inkley is currently the associate director for the Kansas City VA hospital. The second interim director, Gary Million, died Dec. 20 at his home in Kansas City, Mo. He was the deputy network director for the VA Heartland Network and was assigned to the post for 45 days.
The previous permanent director, Tom Sanders, served about 10 years before retiring in May.
About every three years, the medical center and its outlying clinics are evaluated for accreditation by the Joint Commission. The next evaluation is expected this year.
On the most recent reports available, the medical center mostly received average or above average marks, according to the Joint Commission’s website. It is accredited in behavioral health care, home care, hospital and long term care.Dr. John Pope, a psychiatrist and chief of staff for behavioral health at the medical center, was in private practice for eight years before joining the VA system. Pope has worked in the VA 23 years, the last three in Wichita.
He said there are big differences between practicing in the private sector and the VA system. For instance, he doesn’t worry about whether his patients can afford their medication.
Guidelines for care provided to veterans — and who pays for it — depends on a number of factors, but over the years, the system has grown more inclusive, and the VA medical system worked actively in the 1990s to sign up more veterans to get them to use VA facilities.
But working at the VA has its challenges, Pope said.
“We have a lot of folks who would’ve liked to stay in the service but weren’t able to because of the physical or emotional injuries,” Pope said. “A lot of them thought they would be in the service their whole lives, but with their injuries, they’re not able to do that.
“So we help them with getting educated and into a line of work. It’s challenging but there are a lot of good things like the GI Bill. We’re getting a lot of guys coming back from our different wars that are taking advantage of the educational component.”
The medical center tracks the wait times for veterans seeking different kinds of care. At the outlying clinics, about 5 percent of veterans do not get an appointment within a 14-day time frame, Hilger said. The standard is 2 percent.
For primary care, veterans usually see their doctor within a day or two, she said. At the hospital, if a patient needs to be admitted, they are admitted immediately.
At other facilities in the country, veterans have complained about long wait times for services or for appointments to see doctors.
Veterans spent a total of 20,260 days in the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center from September 2011 to September 2012, a decline of about 1,000 days from the year before.
While the majority of veterans seen in Wichita and its outlying clinics are men between 40 and 60, there have been increases in recent years of younger veterans and more women.
About 1,600 women veterans sought treatment at the medical center and its satellite clinics in the past year, up from about 1,300 the year before. The number of women in the system has doubled in just the last few years, officials said.
Changes in demographics have influenced the kinds of services the VA provides, Hilger said.
“For women veterans, it’s a different kind of care. There are privacy issues for women in clinics that have been predominantly (filled with) men for the last 80 years.”
Although the local VA medical center does not deliver babies, it works with other health providers in delivering those services, and it has started to pay for more kinds of women’s health care.
The local medical center has had a women’s health coordinator for several years, Hilger said. There are also military sexual trauma programs for both male and female veterans.
Younger veterans also are suffering different kinds of injuries than seen in previous wars.
Advances in equipment and body armor have resulted in a significantly higher survival rate for traumatic brain injuries. At the same time, the use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Iraq and Afghanistan has also contributed to the higher number of head injuries suffered by U.S. military personnel.
“The newer veterans are coming back with more traumatic brain injuries and not as much physical trauma that we were used to from some of the earlier wars,” Hilger said. “Across the VA system, we have traumatic brain injury centers.”
Pope said veterans who seek care at the medical center are screened for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The percentage of the center’s patients who have been seen for mental health issues has increased over the last 10 years, Hilger said.
In 2003, about 11.7 percent of the center’s patients had some kind of mental health clinic appointment. By 2011, that number had risen to 17.8 percent. For 2012, the percentage dipped to 16.8. But Hilger said the actual number of patients who were seen for mental health issues was up by about 100 to more than 5,000.
Nationwide, the VA has increased staffing. Mental health staff at the medical center and its outlying clinics has nearly tripled in the last several years to about 65 employees, Hilger said.
The center also is part of a nationwide effort to reduce the number of military veterans who are homeless. It has on staff a homeless coordinator and outreach social workers.
There is an annual count in January of each year to count the number of homeless veterans in the community and across the country, Hilger said. In its most recent count, the center found there are 927 homeless veterans in Wichita and its service areas throughout the state.
Nationwide, the government estimates 62,619 veterans are homeless.
The medical center is working on a program called Housing First, which works on finding housing for homeless veterans and then solving other problems they may have, such as medical and mental health issues and substance abuse.
“They learned that trying to solve somebody’s money and financial problems while they are still homeless isn’t the most effective. ... You need shelter and food and housing first,” Hilger said.
“It’s a lot easier to be successful in retaining a job when you have a stable place to go.”
The operating budget for the medical center for Fiscal Year 2012 was about $187 million, Hilger said, and the medical center has adequate funding to operate all current programs and to pay staff competitively.
“We just make sure we earn what we need,” Hilger said. “Could we use more money? Of course. But in order to adequately run the medical center, we are OK.”
About 40 percent of the veterans who use the Wichita center have third-party insurance, Hilger said.
Contributing: Associated Press