Carroll County does a lot for its more than 14,000 veterans, according to Assistant Adjutant with the Maryland chapter of Disabled American Veterans Mike Sater.
Carroll is the only Maryland county to have its own Veterans Service Officers. The Veterans Advisory Council, long an informal fixture on the civic scene, was given formal life by the Carroll County Commissioners in July and recently launched a new veterans' resource website (See related story), and the Carroll Area Transit System shuttles veterans to and from appointments at Veterans Administration health facilities in Baltimore and Frederick.
All of this is good, but Sater said there is one other thing that could make a major difference: a facility where health care providers could serve veterans.
"We still need a hospital here in Carroll County for immediate service," Sater said. "If a vet right now gets up in the morning and he's sick, he has to drive ... to Baltimore for treatment, or he has to drive to Fort Detrick to get treatment. If you get up in the morning and you have the flu, see how you feel about driving 40 minutes."
While the CATS veteran shuttles are helpful, sometimes , an appointment closer to home would be appreciated by sick and disabled veterans, according to Sater, who has a homegrown solution in mind.
Though a VA hospital would be ideal, a more modest site or clinic where medical services could be rendered would be helpful.
"Access Carroll is what I am looking at, I would like that to be the place," Sater said. "We'd like to be the pilot program to ... do the work and then bill the VA for the service."
This is not an entirely new concept. For more than two years, Sater — along with Director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services Frank Valenti, and Tammy Black, executive director of Access Carroll — have been discussing the possibility of using Access Carroll to treat veterans locally. Those discussions have included the Director and the Chief of Staff of the VA Maryland Health Care System, Dennis Smith, and Dr. Adam Robinson, according to Sater and Valenti, but the status of the VA's consideration of the proposal is unclear.
Also unclear is exactly what form an arrangement between the VA and Access Carroll would take, according to Black.
"One thing I understand is that the VA would have to have VA providers providing the services. They are looking to recruit new providers — I think right now that their own providers are pretty stretched," she said. "I am pretty sure we could find providers here in Carroll County that are willing to be part of the VA system. We are very optimistic that we could work together to help recruit those providers and have them work at Access Carroll as a site."
Access Carroll could host VA physicians several times a week, or it might make use of tele-medicine, where a VA physician videoconferences with a patient and an on site physicians assistant, or in some other arrangement. Either way, according to Valenti, a local VA clinic would not only benefit Carroll veterans but would also relieve some pressure on other VA facilities.
"We are trying to nail down being able to provide health care service, which will include dental and eventually mental health, delivered here in Carroll County," Valenti said. "That's what we want to do because Tammy has the room. She has four dental suites now. They can do pre and post surgery prep. They can do all the heavy lifting for the smaller things ... maybe we can take some of the burden off of the region."
The decision to work with Access Carroll must come from the VA itself, according to Valenti, who along with Black said the ball was in the VA's court. After more than two years of discussing the proposal and even sending a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, they can only continue to ask for a response.
"We'll keep pestering them and hopefully between now and the new year we'll get some response," Valenti said.
Neither Smith not Robinson were available for a comment, but Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center Chief of Public and Community Relations Dave Edwards was able to provide a statement regarding the possibility of a Carroll County based VA clinic. It was not optimistic in tone.
"The VA Maryland Health Care System currently has no plans to open a VA Outpatient Clinic in the Carroll County area," Edwards wrote in an email. "When planning for new VA Outpatient Clinics, the VA Maryland Health Care System considers the Veteran population in the area, the demand for services and the proximity to the nearest VA health care facility."
That the Loch Raven VA Outpatient Clinic is 32 miles from Westminster and that the Fort Detrick VA Outpatient Clinic is 29 miles away could make opening a clinic in Carroll County a difficult sell within the Veterans Administration, according to Edwards. At the same time, "We continuously review the demand for VA health care services throughout the state ... but this is something that we will continue to review for possible consideration in the future based on population changes and demand for services," he said.
Sater, for his part, said he believes it will take a legislative action of Congress to get the VA to approve a Carroll County location, no matter how much local VA executives might like the idea.
Valenti was more optimistic, noting that there is a big difference between what is proposed for Access Carroll and clinics like those at Fort Deitrick, a type of facility the VA designated as a Community Based Outpatient Clinic.
"This is more a la carte than a Community Based Outpatient Clinic," Valenti said. "In a facility like at Fort Detrick, they build a building and bring in all the equipment."
The VA is also a very large organization that has seen numerous shifts in staff and leadership over the past few years, and Valenti said that getting a positive response may just be a matter of time and persistence.
"We have been having this dialogue for two years and ... leadership [has changed] several times," he said. "We're really not letting go, like a bulldog with a bone."
Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Serving those who have served
Carroll Area Transit System driver Alvin Tasker knew something was wrong from the minute he picked up the veteran for a run down to Baltimore Veterans Affair Medical Center just more than a month ago.
"He was very lethargic," Tasker said. "He didn't look well and his speech was slurred. I got it out of him that he was going to see his psychiatrist."
Tasker knew something was wrong with his rider beyond a psychiatric issue, and, after dropping him off, he went up to the psychiatric floor of the hospital to check in.
Carroll County Breaking News
"I talked to one of the doctors in the lobby and I told him who I was looking for and he told me, 'Oh, he's OK. We gave him some crackers,' " Tasker said. "And I got pretty upset, 'No, this man is not all right ... he needs help of some kind apart from the psychiatrist.'"
Tasker went to the emergency room and began talk to the doctors there before heading back toward the psychiatry department in time to see the veteran pass out in the hallway.
"The doctors in the emergency right there came and got him and rolled him back into the emergency room," Tasker said. "The emergency room doctor told me that if I hadn't been there when this happened that he might have been dead."
Tasker rejects the "hero" mantel — he said he just made sure the veteran got the care he needed — but he was nevertheless presented with an award at the October meeting of the Veterans Advisory Council, according to CATS Executive Director Louise Tinkler. She said Tasker's actions really show the type of person who drives for CATS.
"The driver went in specifically to speak to the doctor. The patient was admitted and if he had not, it would have a different outcome," Tinkler said. "These guys really go above and beyond because they are totally committed to the people they serve."
For Tasker, it's a privilege to be able to transport veterans to their appointments.
"A lot of these guys I bring down there, this is the only way they have of getting to their appointments," Tasker said. "If this ride is lost to these guys, it's just like being abandoned ... I feel very blessed to be able to help these guys."