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VA officials identify new operators of Watertown clinic, outline changes

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As the Watertown outpatient clinic of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs changes operators and heads toward expanding its staffing, space and services, clinic officials said the changes will improve care and reduce travel for its approximately 4,000 patients.

The clinic, in the CANI Building, 19472 Route 11, is now run by Humana, replacing Valor Healthcare. The Kentucky-based health care company has operations in all 50 states and more than 40,000 employees. Valor Healthcare had operated the clinic since it opened in Watertown in February 2010.

Richard G. Kazel, manager of the Syracuse VA’s medical/surgical care, said the change in the clinic’s operator was made in October, but a public announcement about the change was delayed until the new year as the company finalized the move. He said full details about the change to Humana will come within the next two weeks.

Leah L. Neely, a registered nurse and the clinic’s administrator, said the change gives the clinic access to a wider range of resources.

The clinic is in the process of adding new staff to create four patient-aligned care teams, which pair patients with a team of medical staff that is organized to provide more personalized care.

Each team is staffed by a provider, either a physician, physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner; a registered nurse; a licensed practical nurse, and an administrative staff member.

Mrs. Neely said two teams are in use now, with full implementation of the other two expected by the spring.

The clinic in the past year has received several complaints about poor communication. Mrs. Neely said that in the past, hundreds of calls per day would be funneled to a single registered nurse, creating an “almost impossible” situation to keep up with demand.

She said the new teams, along with increased administrative hiring, would help address those problems.

Training also is under way at the clinic to increase its offering of telehealth service, which allows local staff to help patients see specialists or take part in educational opportunities outside of the region through the use of live video teleconferences. Previously, patients could be stuck driving to Syracuse for certain care needs.

“It’s a long way for a lot of our veterans,” Mrs. Neely said. “This will be a big bonus for them.”

The clinic plans to use the program to help patients handle ear, nose and throat care; cardiology; optometry, and dermatology services. Already, behavioral health patients are using the technology to speak with a psychologist from a department-run hospital in Louisiana.

“That’s the key with telehealth — distance doesn’t matter,” Mr. Kazel said.

He estimated the increased staff and new technology will add about $1,000,000 per year to the cost of running the clinic. However, he and Mrs. Neely said the increased costs up front would bring savings such as reducing emergency room trips and eventually more veterans being able to have their medical needs taken care of without clinic visits.

The clinic also is renovating about 2,700 square feet on the building’s second floor to add to the approximately 4,300 square feet of space it already uses. While much of the new space remained empty Thursday, the space soon will be filled by the new care teams and an expanded lab area.

“It’s coming together,” Mr. Kazel said.

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