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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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VA Responds to Returning Veterans

August 3, 2010

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Since 2003, more than 1.5 million military personnel have served and returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly 40% have enrolled for care in a high-tech, quality-focused VA system, including more than 8,500 southeast Texas sons and daughters. Photo by CPT Randy Stillinger, Texas Army National Guard, 36th Combat Aviation Brigade.

HOUSTON – Recent media reports have declared that timely, dignified care should be provided to returning servicemen and women. At the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, we completely agree.

America's soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors, and Coast Guardsmen deserve the very finest medical care. Earned at enlistment, it is America's sacred promise to them. Nationally, and here in southeast Texas, VA works hard to honor that promise.

Since 2003, more than 1.5 million military personnel have served and returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly 40% have enrolled for care in a high-tech, quality-focused VA system, including more than 8,500 southeast Texas sons and daughters.

In the 1970s, some Vietnam War returnees were critical of VA care. But a major transformation in 1994 brought significant improvements, including extensive performance measurement, evidence-based clinical practice, state-of-the-art technology, comprehensive patient safety programs, and conversion to an electronic medical record system.

VA patient outcomes now exceed those of Medicare patients for many conditions. University studies indicate Veterans are happier with their care than nonveterans. This "new VA" has been praised by Harvard, The New England Journal of Medicine, Washington Monthly, Business Week, New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, Time, Newsweek, AARP, and others. Many experts now consider VA among America's best health-care systems.

The war has presented numbers and types of injuries that could not be predicted when it began. But VA adapted as quickly as possible. Some examples.

Traumatic brain injury: Improvised explosive devices often result in multiple devastating injuries. VA physicians are trained to screen every returning Veteran for TBI. In August 2005, the DeBakey VA added an extremely important and timely program to our array of available health care services, a Network Polytrauma Program. In 2009, we received a five-year $5 million grant from to establish a new VA Rehabilitation Research Center of Excellence focusing on mild to moderate traumatic brain injury.

Mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder: Many returnees present some type of diagnosed mental health problem, including post traumatic stress disorder, a condition caused by exposure to severe threat. A world leader in PTSD treatment, VA operates 160 specialized hospital-based PTSD programs and 207 community Vet Centers. Houston has both.

In addition, all Veterans are screened for depression at the VA. Those in emotional crisis can be admitted immediately. To meet the growing workload, almost 100 mental health providers have been added to VA operations in southeast Texas since 2005. The DeBakey VA opened two new nursing units in 2009 to provide specialized inpatient mental health services for returning combat troops and for women Veterans”

Access to health care: In 2009, the DeBakey VA opened a new Post-Deployment Clinic to serve as a “Welcome Center” for returning combat Veterans. The Post-Deployment Clinic is a “One-Stop” center performing multi-disciplinary evaluations tailored to the individual's physical, mental, and social needs. Assistance and information regarding non-medical VA benefits and community resources are also available. This past May, we opened our fifth outpatient clinic, located at 22001 Southwest Freeway in Richmond.

Suicide prevention: Eighteen Veterans commit suicide each day in this country, the majority not under VA care. To combat this tragic situation, here and nationwide, VA hired on-site suicide prevention coordinators and established peer support/recovery teams. In 2007, VA opened a 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Hotline, toll-free 1-800- 273-8255. It has received more than 245,000 distress calls.

Prosthetics: Veterans, who have lost limbs to blast injuries or required amputations, have access to the latest prosthetic technologies. These include microprocessor components such as the RHEO knee, Adaptive knee, Proprio “Bionic” Foot, and the C-Leg. These computer-controlled rheomagnetic, pneumatic, and hydraulic systems are regulated by internal feedback.

Women's health: More than 7 percent of Veterans receiving care are women. VA has progressively expanded women's services. The Women’s Health Center at the DeBakey VA opened almost 14 years ago. This clinic provides routine primary care, gynecological services, patient and family education, and preventive medicine. In August, the clinic will move to a new, completely renovated space with its own private entrance. It will have more exam rooms and additional health care providers and ancillary staff. Counseling and treatment is available at the VA for survivors of military sexual trauma. Group counseling sessions and support groups are available at the Women’s Health Center and at the three Vet Centers in Houston.

Homelessness: VA offers a wide array of special programs and initiatives specifically designed to help homeless Veterans live as self-sufficiently and independently as possible. The DeBakey VA opened a 40-bed domiciliary residence for homeless Veterans in 2008. VA, working the Department of Housing and Urban Development and local community agencies, provides permanent independent housing for eligible homeless Veterans in areas surrounding Beaumont, Galveston, and Houston under the HUD-VASH Program. Recently, a National Homeless Veterans Hotline, toll-free 1-877-4AID-VET, was established to ensure homeless Veterans or Veterans at-risk for homelessness have free, 24/7 access to trained counselors. The 10th Annual Houston Area Stand Down for homeless Veterans will be held October 21-22, 2010 at the Emancipation Park Community Center.

Rural health: VA provides many rural Veterans with "Health Buddy" monitoring devices, linking them to clinicians in Houston. We are investing money in telehealth programs connecting our outpatient clinics to VA eye and mental health specialists, and other medical experts in the future. In addition to our outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Galveston, Lufkin, and Richmond, we plan to open new clinics in Lake Jackson and mainland Galveston County this winter. New VA outpatient clinics are also planned for Katy and Tomball and expected to open in 36 to 48 months.

The DeBakey VA will continue expanding and changing to meet the needs of returning service members. Across the Nation and in southeast Texas, it is an honor to do so. We, more than 4,500 VA staff and volunteers, believe the VA does not provide free health care. The care we provide has been paid for a thousand times over by our country’s heroes and by the sacrifices they have made to keep our Nation free. What we do here at the VA, and the only reason for our existence, is pay back a portion of the debt this Nation owes to these heroes.

Adam C. Walmus, M.H.A., M.A., F.A.C.H.E.
Director, Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center


Walmus was appointed director of the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center on August 2, 2009. He has been with the VA since 1981 and serves as the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center’s chief executive officer charged with management of one of the most complex VA medical centers in the country with more than 3,500 employees and an annual budget of approximately $585 million. In addition to caring for more than 120,000 Veterans in southeast Texas, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center also serves as a regional and national referral center for many services including cardiac surgery, liver transplant, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy and other neurological disorders, radiation therapy, and spinal cord injury care.