April 1st, 2010

Pilot project brings services to N.H. and Vt. veterans via Web cameras

Veterans in N.H. and Vt. have not always been able to receive services at VA centers because they are simply too far away. Now, a pilot program is bringing mental health services to a community health center near the Canadian border, allowing veterans there to consult with psychiatrists and psychologists some 128 miles away via Web cameras.

The pilot project, funded by an $842,000 federal grant, connects seven staff members of the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., with the Northern Tier Center for Health’s clinic in Richford, Vt. The project is available to veterans and members of the Vermont National Guard and their families.

With VA centers seeing more veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder and brain injuries because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the project, which began last October, seemed particularly well-timed. Just 30-40 percent of veterans in N.H. and Vt. are receiving care at VA centers, because of the distance.

“When it comes to mental health, veterans are often quite specific in their request for VA services,” says Andrew Pomerantz, M.D., chief of mental health and behavioral sciences at the White River Junction VA. “This is primarily due to our awareness and sensitivity to military culture and it’s the effects that linger long after their military service.”

At the Richford Center, veterans or family members may be referred to the project by a doctor or physician’s assistant. The patient would then fill out a form with the help of a social worker and submit it to the VA. The process could be as short as a couple of days, says Pam Parsons, executive director of the Northern Tier Center for Health. (Veterans who are not patients of the Richford center can also take part, Parsons adds).

The program has been slow-growing thus far, Pomerantz says, but has been well-received. “The patients have been very satisfied,” he says.

Parsons adds: “Our office manager’s comment is ‘it works pretty slick.’ We weren’t sure at first, because of the TV screen, the camera… but the doctor’s right there and he’s been doing it for a while, so he’s comfortable.”

The White River Junction center has been providing tele-psychiatry to patients at a Bennington (Vt.) VA clinic for several years. The pilot project marks the first time the VA has partnered with a non-VA entity to offer the service.

Pomerantz says six more health centers in Vt. and N.H. will likely be integrated into the project this year. Among the centers are Coos County Family Health Services in Berlin, N.H.; Mid-State Health Center in Plymouth, N.H.; and Little Rivers Health Care in Wells River, Vt. The grant runs through Sept. 2010, but should be extended at least another year, after which time it is expected to be “self-sustaining and permanent,” Pomerantz adds.

By Ami Albernaz

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