VA expands mental health services into new building on Wichita campus

06/13/2013 7:26 AM

08/08/2014 10:17 AM

A new building at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center, 5500 E. Kellogg, should allow the Veterans Affairs facility to improve the delivery of mental health services.

Construction on the $4.6 million building, which started in October, is slated to be finished by Thanksgiving, said Michelle Moser, operations manager for behavioral health services.

The three-story building will provide about 18,000 square feet and include 38 offices, four conference rooms and one briefing room, Moser said.

General contractor for the project is ESA South Inc., based in Florida.

The government has placed greater emphasis on behavioral health services at veterans and military facilities in recent years, and last year President Obama ordered the VA to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals nationwide. The department announced that it had met that goal this week.

The Wichita medical center now has about 100 staff working in behavioral health services, up from about 25 roughly five years ago. It has hired six staff mental health professionals this year.

“We have kept very busy, and because of that, with all of the employees that we’ve hired, the small space we had has just been cramped,” said psychiatrist Kimberly Pankow, acting associate chief of staff for behavioral health services.

The new building will allow the mental health staff, who currently are spread out in five different areas on campus, to work together, Pankow said.

“These are patients with mental illness or (traumatic brain injury),” Moser said. “When they walk out the door, we have no way of guaranteeing they have gone over to receive additional services that they need (across campus).”

Since 2011, the medical center has seen more than 7,500 patients for behavioral health services, Moser said, and they expect that number to grow.

In the past few years, the medical center has seen more young veterans, female veterans and families seeking mental health services, Moser said.

It also expanded its military sexual trauma program, Moser said, as well as broadened technology with telemedicine and a pilot program that uses personal computers or tablets to provide therapy to patients. The center also is starting a parenting group for families of veterans, she said.

“I think also, in general, because of the advances in medicine and combat casualty care, we have more people surviving wounds than in the past, and when they come back, not only do they have those physical wounds, but they also have mental issues they need to work through,” said Japhet Rivera, interim medical center director.

Rivera said the medical center is in the preliminary planning stages of working with McConnell Air Force Base to provide a joint inpatient psychiatric facility.

The plan has the support of many in Congress, he said, but its realization is entirely dependent on future funding.

“We definitely recognize that there is a need,” Rivera said. “We have about seven or eight veterans on a daily basis that are traveling to places away from Wichita to get treated. They deserve to be closer to their support groups and family here.”

In July, the medical center plans to start evening and Saturday clinics for behavioral health services, Moser said. She said more details will be released later.

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