VA Long Beach seeing major changes

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The term Veterans Affairs Hospital is outdated, officials say. Recently, the push is to replace hospital with health care system — they are trying to offer something more to local veterans, care that goes past the medical bay.

“This facility has been very, very vibrant,” she said. “I think you can see that through the construction, through the number of programs we have added here and it is demonstrated in the number of veterans we have added to our rolls.”

The additions on the campus are striking, with new and specific architecture upgrades. The renovations and construction have provided a new canteen (cafeteria), auditorium (seating up to 270) and spaces for employee education, human resources, primary care, pharmacy and emergency department. There also is the new Major Charles Robert Soltes Jr. OD Department of Veterans Affairs Blind Rehabilitation Center.

The campus used to be a Navy Hospital until it was turned over around 1950 to VA purposes, which at that time hadn’t been nationalized yet.

“Some buildings have been here literally since then, and now we have a bunch of new construction,” said Richard Beam, director of public and community affairs. “You’ll see a stark difference between the new and old construction.”

That construction was put in place to cater to modern times and modern veterans, he added.

“The vast majority of new veterans that we’re seeing are from Vietnam-era or Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “So when they built it, they tried to make it as open as possible — like big long hallways so you don’t feel squashed in. When you are in a hallway, they have glass everywhere so you can see outside from the vast majority of positions. It adds a level of safety and security and gives off less stress.”

Beam is talking about the biggest piece of construction, which is a building that houses primary care, emergency and the pharmacy. For an example of the difference: The old pharmacy used to have thick glass between pharmacist and patient — very similar to a late night gas station.

“It’s just a beautiful space that is quiet and calm,” Beam said. “There is as much natural light as we can get into the building — these are huge changes.”

This is not to say that everything isn’t the top of the line for technology, but many of the changes Beam and Duff detailed were about the care and environmental aspects.

“The way we’ve changed here in Long Beach — in the old days if you had three or four appointments, you would have to go to three or four departments,” Beam said. “So we now have a team instead for the patient and they go to one room. This isn’t driven by the physician, it’s driven by the patient an we come to them.”

There are about 52,000 veterans actively receiving care through VA Long Beach each year — 14,000 from Iraq and Afghanistan. About 3,500 are women.

Duff said they wanted to put an emphasis on healing and aiding — that it used to be more centered on a bureaucracy. The facility is prepared to help in a number of ways — the spinal cord injury and blind rehabilitation centers are nationally applauded — and if they can’t help on campus, then they will send the veteran to the right place.

“The space is designed so that it is not an office space,” she said. “We’ve got even more work to do. We’re working on organizational health, the culture and the environment here. Even if a military service member never enters, they go into the military ready to serve … expecting to put their lives or lives as they know on the line, which could be forever changed. The traumas they endure … are different than most of us will ever experience. That entitles them to care that we as a nation owe them. We have a responsibility to meet those needs that may be unique.”

At the VA Long Beach during the last six years, there has been an average of 4% growth annually. Its rough regional footprint of service is surrounded by the 710 Freeway, 210 Freeway and the borders of Riverside and San Diego counties — although patients come from around the country.

Beam said the process and the men and women who seek help from the facility consistently awe him.

“A lot of veterans do pretty amazing things after they go through the process and figure out what their niche is in life after the accident,” he said. “It’s walking history every day, because you just don’t know who will come in front of you.”

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