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Capital proposals
Potential long-range construction projects for the VA Medical Center, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs strategic capital investment plan:
•Expand first floor and second-floor lab: $9.9 million
•Expand third-floor radiology: $9.9 million
•Renovate fourth-floor patient areas: $2.2 million
•Upgrade underground utilities: $2 million
•Renovate, expand fifth floor: $1.375 million
•Install combined heating and power plant: $1.54 million
•Construct solar electric panels: $1.5 million
•Renovate basement: $1.2 million
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Nurses Leah Otto, left, and Denise Rosa are among the more than 600 people who work at the medical center at Lake Avenue and Randallia Drive.

‘We can do it better’

VA awaiting feds’ approval for upgrades

Former Marines Duke Brickley, left foreground, and Lorn C. Wright read magazines in the outpatient waiting area near the entrance to the medical center.
The intensive care unit will be reopened at some point. It closed in October 2012 when inpatient care was temporarily suspended.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Parts of Fort Wayne’s VA Medical Center have been remodeled, updated or expanded in recent years. “We have several construction projects going on right now,” director Denise Deitzen says.
Dental hygienist Michelle Cavender cleans up after a procedure at the revamped dental clinic on the fifth floor of the medical center, which opened in 1950.

The capital-improvements wish list for Fort Wayne’s VA Medical Center exceeds $29 million.

But only two of eight projects turned up on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ tally of 1,270 construction priorities for fiscal 2014.

Renovating fourth-floor inpatient areas, at a cost of $2.2 million, ranked 380th among those priorities. Renovating a wing of the fifth floor, at a cost of nearly $1.4 million, came in at 549th. Neither carried a funding request from VA for this year.

The director of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System said some of the local construction proposals, particularly the fourth-floor revamp, might someday be authorized.

“We still have some work we’d like to do to really modernize that medical floor. And I think because we haven’t had that in a long time, there’s a very good chance that we will see that happen,” Denise Deitzen said last week in an interview.

“That’s what we’re building for, is in the future,” Deitzen said. “We can provide care there right now. But we can do it better.”

The future of the complex, which opened in 1950 at Lake Avenue and Randallia Drive, has seemed murky at times. Ten years ago, a national commission recommended closing inpatient services. Five years later, VA announced it would replace the medical center with a much larger building but contract inpatient care to local hospitals. By 2011, the replacement plan had been abandoned. And in 2012, inpatient care was temporarily suspended.

Since arriving in town as VANIHCS director in December 2012, Deitzen has insisted the medical center would not only remain open but be upgraded.

“We have several construction projects going on right now,” Deitzen said last week.

VANIHCS employees pointed out recent and ongoing improvements while taking Journal Gazette staff on a tour of the medical center on Wednesday. Those projects included:

•Former offices on the first floor of the main building are being transformed into a patient-care area at a cost of $3 million.

•The medical center is putting together a sterile processing service department to clean instruments and equipment that have always been sent to the VANIHCS campus in Marion for sterilization. The cost: $5 million.

•A dental clinic on the fifth floor is relatively new. So are a laboratory and patient waiting area on the second floor.

“People used to sit in the hallway,” said Dr. Susan Sorensen, chief of pathology and laboratory medicine.

•Rooms have been spruced up in the fourth-floor hospital, which has resumed most inpatient services since suspending them in October 2012 after VA officials identified shortcomings in management leadership, clinical judgment and nurse competencies.

Inpatient chemotherapy infusions were restored about the same time Deitzen took over as director. Acute care and telemetry services have been reinstated. All that remains is reopening the four-bed intensive care unit.

Deitzen said the ICU will be brought back at some point as a Level 4 unit, which would handle the least-complex cases – typically those requiring hospital stays shorter than 72 hours – among VA’s four ICU levels. Before it closed, the ICU was a Level 3 unit.

“We are working on policies and procedures and training” for the ICU, Deitzen said. “We are looking at the staff we need to make sure we have the right staff mix available and bringing them on board.”

Complex cases will continue to be referred to local private hospitals and other VA sites. Since March 2013, the medical center has made 105 such referrals.

Sixteen acute-care beds are available in the fourth-floor hospital. The highest daily patient count has been 15, although the hospital averages only six patients a day, according to Elaine Barth, nursing manager at the medical center.

“We have not had to turn anybody away because we did not have beds,” Barth said of the phase-in of inpatient care.

Deitzen said the VA Medical Center receives “good support” from the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Veterans Integrated Service Network 11, which oversees clinics in much of Indiana and Michigan and parts of Illinois and Ohio. The new director and the new chief medical officer for VISN 11 have visited the Fort Wayne campus, and the chief medical officer will be back soon.

“As we’re standing up the ICU, they’ve been very helpful in working with us and giving us feedback and helping us develop how we can improve on that,” Deitzen said.

VANIHCS is scheduled next year to move its mental health care services from the fifth floor of the medical center to a nearby clinical building owned by Parkview Health. In fiscal 2013, more than 3,600 military veterans made more than 22,600 visits to the medical center to receive mental health treatment from the center’s 20 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

The shift of mental health services to the Parkview building will free up space and parking at the main campus, Jennifer Baran-Prall, administrative assistant to Deitzen, said during Wednesday’s tour.

“This is always going to be a busy place,” Baran-Prall said about the campus as she glanced at the packed waiting room in the first-floor lobby. “We want it to continue to be busy.

“It’s an old facility,” she said, “but we are doing our best to keep it updated.”