Van Zandt pushing to grow its medical facility

A few days after he’d begun work this March as a spokesman for Van Zandt VA Medical Center, Shaun Shenk was at Logan Town Centre, where, as an experiment, he asked an employee of a business he was patronizing what that big tan building was down in the valley.

Shenk knew — it was now his place of employment — but the young employee said, “I don’t know; I’ve wondered that myself.”

In the months since then, management at Van Zandt has been working to make the federal hospital not only better known but better used — for the benefit of the veterans it serves and for the benefit of the community at large, according to Shenk and Van Zandt Director Sigrid Andrew, who came to Altoona last fall.

“It’s a multi-pronged approach,” Shenk said Tuesday during an open house at the hospital.

One of the management team’s latest initiatives is simple enough: a push for more and better street and highway signs to direct motorists to the hospital, which is on Pleasant Valley Boulevard at Cayuga Avenue.

When she was working in Baltimore, Andrew saw lots of signs pointing the way to the VA hospital there, she said.

Such signs are far scarcer around here, so Van Zandt can be difficult to locate, Shenk said.

Shenk and Andrew have been in contact with municipal officials about the issue, and Hollidaysburg Borough has indicated it will be placing two signs showing the way to Van Zandt, Shenk said.

The pair have also talked to Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico, they said.

The most important signs will probably go on I-99, Andrew said.

The open house itself — they’re held quarterly — is an initiative to promote hospital services, according to Shenk.

It featured representatives from hospital departments and affiliated organizations seated at tables, some in front of posters, ready to explain to patients what is offered.

There was a representative for suicide prevention, two representatives for a new peer-support program designed to help vets recover from different problem situations and behaviors and the coordinator of the hospital’s telehealth program.

Since Andrew’s arrival, the hospital has added in-house services, including chemotherapy infusions and colonoscopies, but it also has been promoting telemedical connections, mainly with the Pittsburgh VA, that can be made via patient cellphone, connections that can include conference links with third parties, such as loved ones, according to coordinator Kym Hambleton.

Andrew has also been pushing to enlist more of the approximately 81,000 veterans in the hospital’s 14-county catchment area to increase Van Zandt’s active roster of about 26,000.

The “overwhelming majority” of those regional veterans are eligible for at least some VA services, Shenk said.

But to determine that eligibility, they need to come forward, he said.

The eligibility rules can be complex, officials have said.

Among those in the region not yet signed up, 20 percent or more — a percentage mirroring the poverty rate in the region — will be eligible for free care, Andrew predicted.

A similar additional percentage will be eligible for care that is very inexpensive to them, she predicted.

In keeping with her recruitment effort, Andrew convinced one vet — a longtime hospital employee who’s close to retirement — to sign up for benefits just as the open house was about to begin.

He has never bothered to do so before, she indicated.

Getting more eligible veterans into the system will not only benefit them and their families by providing good care at lower cost, it will also benefit the community, because of the additional money those veterans will have to spend on community goods and services.

The additional Van Zandt payroll will translate into more community purchasing power and because of the bigger hospital budget, more will be spent for community goods and services, Andrew said.

A recent printout from the hospital provided by Shenk showed the annual economic impact of Van Zandt to be $147 million — the sum of expenditures, including payroll.

Van Zandt management has supplemented its recruit­ment of patients with adjustments meant to help those patients access the hospital’s help as easily and pleasantly as possible, according to Andrew.

That was illustrated during the open house when an employee of an office just off the first-floor lobby where the open house was taking place overheard a reference to her duties and — believing it was a patient in need — popped out and asked if she could help.

The people who work for her really care for veterans, Andrew said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


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