The VA Medical Center serving those who served

OldStoryImageThe Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center stands right in the thick of the medical complexes running along the eastern end of Archer Road. And more than 2,500 veteran patients walk through its doors on an average day, with 2,893 full-time employees and 223 part-time employees caring for their health.

The facility needs a large staff because it serves an area stretching from the Panhandle to Jacksonville and from southern Georgia and to just north of Orlando. “We’re one of the busiest Veterans Administration hospitals in the country,” says public affairs officer Heather Frebe.

The center is so busy, in fact, that next fall it will open a new 226-bed tower to handle the growing demand. This is in contrast to some northern VA medical centers, which are servicing fewer veterans than in previous years.

One reason for the growth in the number served by the Gainesville center is an aging population. As veterans retire, they are moving south, putting many of them in the area this VA center serves.

Another source of the surge is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The recent wars have prompted changes in services here. One example is the new Women Veterans Clinic, to accommodate the increasing number of female veterans.

Along with the main facility in Gainesville, the local VA hospital operates 12 regional clinics that provide basic care in locations including The Villages, Palatka and Perry. Combined, the center and clinics provide services including dental and eye care, routine prescriptions, open-heart surgery, physical therapy and mental health treatments.

A Fixture for 40 Years

The VA decided to locate a facility in Gainesville as part of a move to place centers in cities with medical teaching hospitals. When it opened in 1967, the center consisted of a five-story tower with 480 beds. Over the years, space became so tight and the need for services so great that in 2008, the VA broke ground on an additional tower.

The 226-bed tower will not only help solve space problems, but will offer a new level of service. The tower will have individual rooms for convalescing veterans, along with space for families to stay.

“It will be a first in the VA system,” Frebe says. “The veterans and their families can have somewhere private while the veterans receive care.”

Costing about $90 million, the new tower ranked No. 18 in Southeast Construction magazine’s list of top projects. To accommodate visitors, the VA is also adding a parking garage with 637 spaces.

“We’ve probably employed 1,000 to 2,000 construction workers overall,” Frebe says. And once the tower opens, it will create another 270 new jobs, mostly in nursing.

Substantial Impact on the Community

It’s difficult to calculate the center’s direct economic impact on the community because records are kept for the entire North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, rather than each individual location. However, from 2002 to 2010, annual revenue for the system as a whole rose from $365 million to $699 million.

Within Gainesville and Alachua County, there is no doubt the VA medical center has a substantial impact, Frebe says. Armenthis Lester, a transition patient advocate at the medical center, agrees.

“You have all types of people coming to Gainesville to take advantage of the facilities, along with researchers from all over the world,” Lester says.

In addition, the center provides resident training for medical students at the University of Florida, as well as  clinical experience for nurses and other students from UF and Santa Fe College. Some of these newly minted professionals eventually find jobs at the center, which helps Alachua County retain students who are trained here.

Lester was one such student. She trained at UF to become an occupational therapist, while gaining her clinical training at the center. She now helps new veterans navigate the VA system and get access to care.

“Even though the VA is a healthcare facility, we are taking care of the whole veteran,” Lester says.

The local VA hospital is named for Malcom Randall, a World War II Navy veteran who spent more than 30 years as the director of the Gainesville Center before retiring in 1998.

“Employment issues, homelessness issues—all those impede one’s health.”

The VA’s presence in Alachua County goes beyond the medical center and regional clinics. The VA operates out of about 30 locations in the area, including facilities for patient care and office space.

One new facility, the Honors Center, is located in east Gainesville. It opened in 2010 and focuses on services for homeless veterans, including job and recovery training.

“They are trying to help [the homeless veterans] get on their feet,” Frebe says.

The Honors Center is just one example of how the VA interacts with the community at large.

“The VA is a central aspect to the Gainesville community,” says Lester, citing the fact that the medical center and its other facilities work closely with several local community organizations to help serve veterans.

“We realize that the government purse is only so big,” she adds.

While Lester is not a veteran, many employees at the VA are, she says. This creates an environment she describes as very “veteran-centric.”

“You have people who once served who are now serving those who served,” Lester says. “So it’s like a circle of service.”

For Lester, working with veterans recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan is particularly rewarding.

“It really puts a face to the war,” she says. “I’m doing things that are going to impact their lives—not only their lives, but their families’ lives and their neighbors’ lives.”

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