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Tampa VA to open new mental health clinic

TAMPA — The James A. Haley VA Medical Center plans to open a new, larger mental health clinic by the summer of 2013 to cope with a rising number of area veterans seeking care, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday.

At 22,300 square feet, the new facility will be about 4,000 square feet larger than the existing clinic and will treat up to 148,000 veterans from Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties, the VA said.

The clinic will be at 10770 N 46th St. in Tampa, which is about 2 miles and a five-minute car ride from the Haley campus. The Haley eye clinic also is at the site, and Haley operates buses shuttling patients back and forth.

With cramped quarters on Haley's campus, the VA is forced to offer some services off site, officials said.

The VA anticipates a significant increase in mental health patients over the next decade. Haley numbers were not available Tuesday.

"We've seen a significant increase over the last few years, and it's shown no sign of slowing down," said Dr. Glenn Catalano, Haley's associate chief of staff for mental and behavioral sciences. "Looking ahead of the game, it's going to ensure ongoing access to care."

In addition, Haley said it was hiring 13 new mental-health clinicians and three support personnel, part of a national expansion of the VA's mental health workforce in the wake of criticism that veterans often face delays getting treatment for mental health issues.

"This new facility will ensure that Florida's veterans continue to have access to high quality medical care that they've earned through their service to our nation," VA secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement.

The new clinic will be located in an existing building at the site, and the VA said the project will create 13 construction jobs. The VA won't own the building, but will rent it under a 10-year, $600,000 contract. A lease for the existing mental-health clinic, located adjacent to the Haley campus, expires next summer.

The VA has been under increasing pressure to offer faster mental-health care to veterans, especially those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the agency is also coping with increased medical claims from Vietnam veterans, who are aging and in need of greater care.

Earlier this year, the VA's inspector general reported that the agency's statistics on how quickly veterans get mental-health care are unreliable.

The VA has said 95 percent of first-time patients in need of mental-health treatment receive a comprehensive evaluation within 14 days. But the inspector general said those numbers "had no real value" and reported that 49 percent of veterans in 2011 — more than 370,000 patients — received a full evaluation in two weeks.

For the majority of patients, the inspector general reported, the average wait time was actually 50 days.

A lack of clinicians — psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other professionals — is most often blamed for delays. That prompted the VA earlier this year to announce plans to hire an additional 1,600 clinicians and 300 support staff around the nation — a 10 percent hike of its mental-health workforce.

Aside from the 16 new positions at Haley — the VA said most will be hired within six months — Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Pinellas County will be hiring an additional 54 mental health personnel, a Bay Pines spokesman said.

Bay Pines also is building a new mental health clinic on its Seminole campus that is expected to be completed in 2014.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Tampa VA to open new mental health clinic 06/12/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 1:09am]

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