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MMH officials say they’re ready to provide more vet care

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MASSENA - As discussions continue about siting a veterans hospital and veterans nursing home in Ogdensburg, Massena Memorial Hospital officials say they could provide more services to the local veteran population if the VA would allow them to do so.

But, VA officials say, they’re already working on new initiatives that would keep veterans at the local hospital instead of traveling the three-and-a-half hours to Syracuse for doctor’s appointments.

Massena Memorial CEO Charles F. Fahd II told members of the Board of Managers this week that they have been talking with officials at the Syracuse VA Medical Center about offering more services locally at a time when organizers are trying to site veteran facilities in Ogdensburg.

Most recently, a veterans hospital at the Pritchard Building at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center and a veterans nursing home at the former St. Joseph’s Home in Ogdensburg won the support of the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators this month. The resolution came at the request of Navy veteran Joseph M. Cosentino, who is spearheading the Operations Veterans drive to improve medical services for ex-servicemen.

Operation Veterans is looking for a closer alternative to the VA hospital and nursing home in Syracuse. Many of St. Lawrence County’s estimated 10,000 veterans travel to Syracuse often for medical treatment.

But Massena Memorial Hospital could expand their services if they were allowed to do so, Mr. Fahd said.

“We have been talking with the VA in Syracuse to allow MMH to perform more procedures so (veterans) don’t have to get on a bus for three-and-a-half hours. It’s a whole day event for a veteran,” he said.

The van, operated by the Disabled American Veterans, leaves Massena at 4:30 a.m. and returns from Syracuse after the last veteran has finished his or her appointment.

The hospital has housed a VA Clinic since 1993 to provide some local services to veterans under the terms of their agreement with the VA Medical Center.

The clinic provides primary care services and mental health care for veterans in St. Lawrence County and surrounding areas of the north country. Blood drawing and analysis services are available in Massena, as are chest, abdominal and extremity X-rays. Services such as prescriptions are processed through the mail, although emergency medicine is provided at the local VA Clinic.

“We currently have a contract to provide primary care and mental health services,” MMH Director of Ancillary Services Mark P. Brouillette said.

But Mr. Fahd said they can and would like to offer more services.

“We would like to see a lot of services we could perform, but are not allowed to perform here. We believe we have the ability to perform a lot of tests and procedures that are done in Syracuse,” he said.

Speaking following the meeting, Mr. Fahd reiterated that Massena Memorial was “looking to provide services that we have not been able to provide in the past. But the services that we are referring to that are not being provided locally are things like routine MRIs and CTs and endoscopy procedure that we could do upstairs in our endo unit.”

Mr. Brouillette said they can negotiate with VA officials in Syracuse to perform some “off-contract services” at Massena Memorial Hospital. For instance, he said, if a veteran had an emergency visit and was unable to travel to Syracuse for an MRI, “those types of services can be negotiated.”

However, he said, as with some health insurance plans, they need prior authorization from VA officials in Syracuse to provide the service at the hospital.

If a veterans needs emergency services and is referred from the North Country Veteran’s Clinic to the emergency room, there is no cost to the veteran, Mr. Brouillette said.

“You have to travel (to Syracuse) for the routine stuff,” Mr. Fahd said. “They just don’t want to have to duplicate the equipment and/or the expense. They have the equipment, they have the staff. They don’t want to have to pay for those services to be done at our facility or at any other hospital that would be close to the veteran because it’s available down there.

“We would like to be able to provide as many or as much services as we have the ability to provide. We believe we have more services that we can provide,” he said, noting that in future negotiations with the VA - in approximately six months - they want to attempt to include as many services in the contract as possible to keep veterans from having to make the trek to Syracuse.

Many veterans are also eligible to be seen at Massena Memorial Hospital if they’re under Medicare and choose to use that option rather than the VA, according to the hospital CEO.

“Veterans are very dedicated to the VA system. Not all, but most of the veterans are certainly World War II and Korean War veterans. All of these guys are eligible to be served under Medicare. They’re all 64 years old and plus. They choose to stay with the VA, which is fine. On any given day whenever the van is here, there are a number of veterans that make that trip. If they don’t want to make the trip (to Syracuse), they certainly have the ability to utilize the hospital and file for those services,” Mr. Fahd said.

“We’re currently servicing in excess of 1,000 veterans per month,” Mr. Brouillette said. “We want to continue to promote services here at Massena Memorial for all north country veterans. We’re willing, ready and able to do that. It’s just a matter of facilitating it with the VA.”

Richard G. Kazel, manager of the Syracuse VA’s medical/surgical care line said they are willing and ready to work with MMH officials to make sure veteran’s needs are addressed. He said the VA will pay to have a service provided if a veteran is “really in need and it’s prohibitive to make the trip down here.”

That might include authorizing payment for an MRI or emergency consult for gastroenterology, Mr. Kazel said.

“It’s not necessarily, sorry, we can’t do anything for you,” he said.

He said they’re currently looking to the future with a system that will allow patients to be at Massena Memorial Hospital and be seen by a doctor in VA via computer hookup.

“We’re going to be making an investment and enhancements to primary care. That’s a given. We’re really going to invest in telehealth specialty services. That’s another given. We’re going to make that happen. That’s an investment in technology equipment,” Mr. Kazel said.

Before that can become a reality, though, he said they need to train personnel and educate patients about the system.

“We want to make sure people are comfortable with face-to-face through the medium of what looks to them like a TV screen which you see in both directions. This a platform that we can build on with other applications. That’s a big step in the right direction,” he said.

Mr. Kazel said they’ve been working with Massena Memorial Hospital officials since 1993 and they look forward to continuing to work with them in the future to make sure veterans’ needs are addressed.

“Charlie Fahd and Mark Brouillette, they’re just wonderful people. I have a lot of confidence in Massena Memorial because we have a partnership. I don’t look as it as a contract, I look at it as a partnership,” he said.

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