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VA clinic looking to entice more patients in new city location

The company that recently took over as the operator of Washington County VA Outpatient Clinic is hoping to bring more patients into the health care system.

“We know that there are veterans out there who are eligible to enroll in this clinic, but they haven’t yet,” said Dr. Scott Wise, president of Dallas-based Valor Healthcare. “But when we do our outreach ... and those veterans come in and see this place, we know that enrollment will grow. And that’s what we want. We want them to be able to get the care and the services that they’ve earned through their service.”

Wise gave an interview following a brief ceremony for the grand opening of the clinic in its new location at the Crossroads Center in Washington. The clinic’s been operated there by Dallas-based Valor since April 1 under a 10-year contract with the VA.

A town hall-style meeting for local veterans was planned for later in the day at a nearby American Legion post.

Wise said about 4,200 veterans from the area are enrolled at the clinic for primary care.

“The VA estimates that there will be upwards of 4,600 eventually … we think there’s tremendous opportunity simply because we know there are a lot of veterans in this catchment area who aren’t already enrolled, and that’s why we do a grand opening event and then we’ll do an outreach event probably later in the year to grow enrollment.”

The clinic is part of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, whose other facilities are the larger medical centers in Pittsburgh and Aspinwall and outpatient clinics in Fayette, Beaver and Westmoreland counties, Wheeling, W.Va., and Belmont County, Ohio.

Valor, which was founded in 2004, operates a total of 33 VA clinics across the country. Among those are the outpatient facilities in Westmoreland and Belmont (Ohio) counties.

The Washington County clinic first opened in 2001. It was formerly in the Washington Crown Center in North Franklin Township, about two miles away from the new one on the second floor of the building on West Beau Street.

“Selecting this location was part of our proposal” for the contract to run the clinic.

The previous operator was Sterling Medical Associates, a Cincinnati company whose five-year contract to run the facility recently expired. Contracts to run outpatient clinics like the one in Washington go up for competitive bid when they expire.

The VA’s outpatient clinics typically offer primary care, behavioral health services and podiatry. The Washington clinic’s staff also has a PhD pharmacist and dietitian on staff and offers podiatry services. An audiologist started at the clinic in April.

“Audiology was added based on the veterans’ feedback, that they that kind of care here,” said Dr. Ali Sonel, chief of staff for the Pittsburgh VA system. “We’re looking at bringing in optometry here. We’ve also expanded our telemedicine and telehealth capabilities so that more specialty care can reach them here without them having to drive into Pittsburgh.”

At about 21,000 square feet, the Crossroads location has about twice as much space as the previous one. A newly built walkway leads into the clinic from the floor of the adjacent parking garage that’s set aside for patients.

“They walk straight from their parking lot across the sky bridge directly into our clinic,” Wise said. “(It’s a) great, great convenience for the veterans.”

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Blight: Where will the money come from to fight it?

State and local officials from both major political parties on Thursday tackled the issue of removing a scourge from local cities, boroughs, suburbs and rural areas.

State Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-South Strabane, convened a roundtable discussion in the Canonsburg Borough building to formulate plans of attack on blight.

And while there were some concrete ideas about inventorying blighted properties as a first step in grasping the scope of the problem – plus incentives to recognize those who keep their property ship-shape – the issue came down to how to pay for a fix.

Introducing the topic, first-term legislator O’Neal noted the July 12, 2017, collapse of 15 N. Main St. in the Washington central business district, part of his district. The owners had been cited for a building code violation, and the massive cost of demolishing the building was one of the factors that led to a tax increase for city property owners the following year.

But O’Neal at the same time identified himself as a “huge proponent” of a private owner’s property rights.

Dennis Davin, secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, presented as one solution to fight blight through land banks as part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Restore Pennsylvania” plan to fund not only blight reduction but also expanded internet broadband access, flood prevention and road repairs through a severance tax on natural gas extraction that would raise $4.5 billion.

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll, at the wide-ranging, two-hour discussion, had a different option: lift the governor’s moratorium on drilling beneath state parks and forests, which she said would produce $1 billion in bonuses.

In an interview after the discussion, Davin said it was hard for him to address this in his role as DCED secretary because the responsibility for this matter lies with the governor, the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

But lifting the moratorium raised constitutional issues and questions about using funds from public lands for allocations outside the lands themselves, Davin continued.

“That particular potential of a billion dollars for additional drilling by gas companies, we don’t think that solves the overall problem,” Davin said.

He made much of the fact that Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in U.S. production of natural gas, but that Texas collects nearly 700 percent more revenue from its natural gas severance tax than Pennsylvania receives from its impact fee.

Aside from the funding issue, Davin said every community needs to capitalize on what makes it unique, giving people a reason to both stay there and visit.

Broadband access means people don’t necessarily have to live near their workplace, but a community needs to offer both safety and attractiveness.

William McGowen, executive director of the Washington County Redevelopment Authority, said his agency has participated in removing 124 blighted structures countywide in the past five years.

Among its sources of funding are federal and state money, and the Local Share Account from gaming at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino.

There has not been, however, a countywide inventory of blighted buildings, and developing an inventory is a first step in measuring the scope of the problem of blight.

Three years ago, Washington County created a land bank to make it easier to return blighted, vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties to productive use, with the aim of stabilizing housing and job markets while staving off community deterioration.

Canonsburg Councilman Eric Chandler said the borough was able to identify 27 blighted properties within its borders, two of which have been condemned.

Washington Mayor Scott Putnam suggested recruiting high school students to inventory properties, “feed ‘em doughnuts and pizza,” before and after they tour neighborhoods and place structures into categories to identify those that require attention. Commissioner Harlan Shober also favored a local approach.

Canonsburg businesswoman Michelle Bruce questioned the panel about the role of internet property sales among absentee landlords.

Davin compared it with “online gambling,” in which buyers hope to strike it rich by buying cheap properties in areas that will become trendy, such as has happened in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville and East Liberty neighborhoods.

Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan said renters often have as much trouble contacting absentee landlords as officials do, and asked if “creative” legislation could allow tenants to purchase property from non-responsive landlords.

“What would that even look like?” O’Neal responded.

“I’m thinking of a tax incentive,” Irey Vaughan replied.

Incentives not involving taxes also surfaced during a question-and-answer session.

“I’ve been working on this for four years,” said East Washington Mayor Michael Gomber, who has given out 176 awards for beautiful homes and yards.

Residents must meet all codes and ordinances, keep their yards mowed and maintain landscaping.

“I went door to door and gave certificates out,” said Gomber, who plans to expand the incentive to beautify the borough to the holiday season.

Vitalant closing June 15 due to lack of donors

The Washington donation center of Vitalant, a nonprofit community blood service provider, will be closing its doors June 15 because of a shortage of donors.

Kristen Lane, the market lead for Vitalant, said Western Pennsylvania is facing a health crisis.

“There aren’t enough donors in the Washington area,” Lane said. “We can’t justify keeping the center open because it has declined by half of the donors over the past few years. Western Pennsylvania is suffering because of the lack of blood. It’s making hospitals in the area have to get blood from the surrounding area.”

After the Washington location of Vitalant closes, Lane said donors can go to Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center to donate. Also, Lane said a contract is in the works for donors to go to Washington Hospital.

“The Washington area can’t be proud of this,” Lane said. “Since we don’t have enough blood supply in the area, we have to travel outside of the state to get blood. This is really difficult for the hospitals around this area. Hospitals need blood for cancer patients, premature babies and anyone who was involved in a traumatic accident.”

Founded in 1943, Vitalant, formerly known in this area as Central Blood Bank, has become one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit transfusion medicine organizations.

Lane said the No. 1 reason why people don’t donate blood isn’t because they’re restricted, but because they haven’t been invited to donate.

“We want to do our best to make people aware about how much blood is really needed in our communities,” Lane said. “We need our community to realize that this is a health crisis. We need more donors to help us.”

Jon Naser of Washington has been a frequent donor at the Vitalant center in the Crossroads Center at 95 W. Beau St. Naser said he started donating because both of his parents were donors.

“I’ve always had a positive experience with the staff,” Naser said. “My mom was giving blood for 30 years, while my dad had given for 25 years.”