ST. PETERSBURG — Charles Boone wouldn't recognize the place.
Boone, who served in the Spanish-American War, was the first patient in 1933 at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, a then-remote hospital where even a few aged Civil War veterans would soon become patients.
From the humble beginnings of that $1 million soldier's home, what became the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg is today undergoing a $253 million building boom, the largest in its history. Facility officials expect to transform the treatment experience for the facility's 114,000 patients while keeping up with an increased veterans population.
The centerpiece of a dozen projects is a new $194 million, 156,000-square-foot Mental Health Center building on which construction began earlier this year. Completion is expected in 2014.
Bay Pines isn't alone in its reinvention. At the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, dozens of projects have been launched in the past two years, including expansions of the facility's renowned polytrauma and spinal cord injury centers.
Bay Pines, like many Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, is coping with an increased population of veterans needing medical or mental health care. Bay Pines expects a 4.4 percent increase in veterans enrolled for care by 2015, up to a total of 119,000 veterans.
And in the Tampa Bay area, officials say, patients tend to be older and, as a result, sicker than at other VA hospitals, thus requiring intense and more complicated care.
"We're becoming more patient-centered," said Kris Brown, Bay Pines' interim director. "We're hoping veterans will have quicker access to care. It will be a safer, more peaceful environment that promotes healing. … Some of our buildings are so old, we can't do some of the things we want to do."
Bay Pines' expansion and renovations are based on a new treatment model at VA facilities around the nation. The VA is trying to make veterans' outpatient care more seamless and less scattered, allowing them to make one visit at one location to see anyone from their primary care physician to nutritionist and pharmacist.
This new model is especially critical for Bay Pines, whose services are scattered in several locations on its 330-acre campus.
"We have to provide more space for other members of the care team in our primary care clinic," Brown said.
Perhaps the biggest transformation of care at Bay Pines will come with the new Mental Health Center.
"One thing I'm really excited about is that the treatment of mental illness has become more mainstream and open," said Dr. Dominique A. Thuriere, chief of mental health and behavioral sciences at Bay Pines. "It's an acknowledgement that these things happen to people and they need attention."
Mental health visits to Bay Pines have grown dramatically in the past decade, and the numbers are expected to climb further. Bay Pines officials expect patient mental health visits to climb to 211,000 by 2029, up from 150,000 in 2010.
The new center will increase acute care psychiatric beds from 33 to 40, the VA says.
The design, Thuriere said, will emphasize patient security and privacy with some individual rooms. Architects will emphasize warm colors and aim for a homey, noninstitutional look. "We didn't want the building to look like a spaceship," he said.
Separate areas for the mental health care of female veterans will be available, promoting camaraderie and perhaps a less threatening environment than one where men and women are mixed together, Thuriere said.
"This place is designed with the patient in mind," he said. "We're all very excited to go from a 1933 setting to something state of the art."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.