New VA clinic opened at Ohio Valley Mall in St. Clairsville

T-L Photos/ROBERT A. DEFRANK ABOVE: Crowds of veterans from across the Ohio Valley gather outside the new outpatient clinic at the Ohio Valley Mall on Friday, waiting to take a tour.

By ROBERT A. DEFRANK

Times Leader Staff Writer

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Crowds of veterans from Ohio and West Virginia gathered for a tour of the new Belmont County Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic at the Ohio Valley Mall on Friday.

At 16,000 square feet, the new location is twice the size of the former Plaza Drive location, also in St. Clairsville, and boasts the latest in medical equipment and technology in a central location at the Ohio Valley Mall.

“We’re committed to taking the care as close to the veterans as possible so they are not inconvenienced by long drives or commutes to get the care they want and need,” Ali Sonel, chief of staff at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. said. “This has been one of our five community-based out patient care clinics.”

“We obviously have a significant need for mental health (care), and we have a significant need for primary care,” he said. “Most of our patients would be coming here for our primary care, which would mean that even if they’re otherwise healthy, they would come here for their proper screenings.”

Sonel added that the site also will provide services for chronic issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The clinic has about 40 staff members. Sonel estimated about there are about 5,000 veterans in the clinic’s service area. The prior St. Clairsville site would normally see 13,000 to 15,000 appointments in a year. Sonel said the numbers could increase — and the new clinic is able to take them.

“This is one of the areas of the county that’s very dense in terms of veteran population,” he said.

Sonel said audiology is another service in high demand. He added that telehealth services also connect patients with professionals without the need to travel.

“Everything from cardiology to endocrinology to pulmonary care, we will be able to have our providers connect with the patients in the clinic location, then having them deliver their care without them going to the (Pittsburgh) facility,” he said. “We can actually look at a diabetic patient’s retina and get the images to our opthamologists, our eye doctors in Pittsburgh.”

Sonel added that the staff expects to see an increasing need for services for Vietnam-era veterans who are growing older and dealing with resulting issues.

“We do anticipate an increase in women veterans. Right now we’re at about the 8-10 percent mark, but we expect it to go up over the coming years,” he said.

Sonel said the clinic will also offer medication counseling, since many veterans are on multiple medications, as well as insulin. He also noted an increase of recently discharged veterans from current conflicts, often dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and sometimes substance abuse.

“A lot of our patients do require mental health care in conjunctions with their primary care. We’ll have mental health professionals here,” he said. “Our goal is really to make it a one-stop shop as much as possible.”

Speakers at the grand opening included U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who spoke from his own perspective as a veteran.

“We live in the best nation on the planet, and the reason that we live in the best nation on the planet is the men and women who served in uniform,” he said. “I am just humbled every time I stand in the presence of our military veterans. … The people who work at these local clinics are committed to their jobs, and they’re committed to doing the very best that they can do for our veterans.”

State Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, also spoke briefly as an elected official and as a veteran about the greater convenience of the new location. A representative of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, conveyed the senator’s commendations for bringing quality treatment to a convenient location.

Darlene Harrington, senior director of operations with Valor Healthcare, thanked the staff and contractors at Valor Healthcare, which operates the clinic.

Attending veterans were excited about the range of services available and the centralized location.

“I believe it’ll be very convenient. They need satellites. It’s tough sometimes to go clear to Pittsburgh,” Gary Mayberry of Barnesville said.

“I’m just glad they finally have a good outpatient clinic in the Belmont County area. I know I’ve drove guys up to the VA hospital in Pittsburgh before. It’s closer for them to come,” Chester Crooks of Bellaire said, adding that enthusiasm for the new site has been high. “They’ve been talking about it for a couple of weeks down at our post” in Bellaire.

“It’s bigger, it’ll be able to serve more veterans. They’ll have more resources to serve veterans. So I think everybody’s excited about it,” St. Clairsville American Legion Commander Larry Barnes said.

“I’m getting my hearing aids here,” William “Bill” Hamlin of St. Clairsville said. “I want to take the Agent Orange test to see if I have any of the chemicals from that, because (the Viet Cong) used to spray us in convoys (in Vietnam).”

Kevin West of the Bellaire American Legion and a member of the Belmont County Veterans Services Commission board added that the commission will have a representatives at the clinic to assist veterans with their benefit packages. He also appreciated the quality of the staff.

“It’s finally looking better for the veterans now that you have a new clinic to work out of,” he said. “The staff seems like they’re more caring. All they do is thank our veterans again and again. That shows there is concern, not just for a paycheck but for that person.”

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