75 Years of Excellence Serving Our Veterans: Lebanon VA Medical Center

Story and Photos By Christina Heintzelman – cheintzelman@benchmarkmediallc.com

In memory of my father, Master Sgt Charles D. Boyer, Pearl Harbor Survivor stationed at Wheeler Field and a recipient of services through Lebanon VAMC

Our military men and women have risen above and beyond John F. Kennedy’s historic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” And, in response to their services to our country, the Lebanon VA Medical Center has turned JFK’s challenge into the prime example of what our country can do for returning military veterans.

The process of caring for military veterans has a long history with roots that can be traced back to 1636, when the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were at war with the Pequot Indians. The Pilgrims passed a law which stated that disabled soldiers would be supported by the colony. Later, George Washington and the Continental Congress in 1780 passed the first act offering pensions to widows and orphans of Revolutionary War soldiers. Land grants gave free land in the public domain to officers and soldiers who continued to serve; or, if they were killed, given to their representatives or heirs. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) followed the Civil War and at this time set up a fund for the relief of needy veterans and began funding some veterans’ homes, which were later turned over to the government, with the first one in Pennsylvania being the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Erie. The VA draws its history from the second inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln, which in part states, “…  to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan…”

The Veterans Administration was formed in 1930, which elevated the then Veterans Bureau to a federal administration to consolidate and coordinate government activities affecting veterans. The US Department of Veterans Affairs was later created to rename the Veterans Administration, effectively elevating the newly named Department of Veterans Affairs to a cabinet level department during the Reagan administration in 1988.

Our local history of the Lebanon VA Medical Center dates to 1942 and 1943 when the federal government began buying parcels of land in Lebanon, PA, and began construction of the current facility in 1945. The main building was modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The total cost to build the hospital and additional structures was three million dollars. In May of 1947, the first employees were hired, and the first patient was admitted September 15, 1947. By the end of that day, five patients had been admitted.

The VA Medical Center in Lebanon is responsible for veterans from nine surrounding counties: York, Lancaster, Adams, Perry, Dauphin, Berks, Cumberland, Schuylkill, and Lebanon. But veterans from any part of the United States may use their services if necessary. As Douglas Etter, Chief Communications Officer and thirty-four-year Army veteran says, “So any veteran traveling anywhere in the US can stop by any of the facilities for medical needs they may have including prescription refills.” Lebanon VA also oversees local VA outpatient clinics in various surrounding areas. Other VA services in the area which are not managed by Lebanon VAMC are local vet centers in Harrisburg and Lancaster, and the Indiantown Gap National Cemetery.

Out of 170 VA medical centers in the country, the Lebanon facility has been named as the best facility in the country for 2020 and 2021 for patient care and experience. Even the newly renovated cafeteria and lounge is ranked as one of the best VA cafeterias in the country.

Lebanon VAMC offers a full range of inpatient and out -patient services including surgery services, dietary/weight management programs, home based primary care, in house primary care teams, specialty care, tele-health appointments, 24 hour emergency department, acute care, ICU, comprehensive rehabilitation programs, orthopedic surgery and care, long term care, hospice, and every other service for medical and emotional needs down to and including support services such as a barber, cafes, recreation and activity center, spiritual/religious services, child care services for employees and the public (depending on available space), and a retail store.

Regarding the ICU unit, which was totally rebuilt two years ago, Etter states, “Shortly after we finished construction on this new unit, COVID hit and the positive thing that happened because of this new construction was that we were able to have the new ICU and also have a separate unit for COVID ICU.”

During COVID, Lebanon VA was the first in the nation to figure out a way of sterilizing N95 masks during the time that PPE was in high demand and short supply because of the global pandemic. Etter states, “The FDA had approved a procedure for sterilizing N95 masks which are normally thrown away after one use. Because PPE was in such short supply, we became the first VA in the country to begin sterilizing and thus reusing N95 masks. It was a rigorous procedure in which not only was the mask sterilized but it was also returned to the person who brought it into us. We got a lot of kudos for doing that, so we expanded the program and began doing it for other VAs.”

Currently the YMCA basketball court at the VA Medical Center has been turned into a COVID vaccine, booster, and testing location serving both veterans and the outlying community.

Lebanon also began initiating programs for employees who were experiencing burnout and exhaustion and took a program within their veteran’s programs called Whole Health and began to offer it to their employees, while additionally creating an employee recognition program to honor their hard-working staff. Lebanon VAMC ranks third in the nation in employee job satisfaction.

Lebanon is the first VA in the country to establish a High Reliability Organization (HRO) department, in which systems are constantly audited for ways in which they can be improved to ensure patient safety and employee satisfaction and recognition. “All of these programs speak to the culture of the Lebanon VAMC and the goal of management and employees to provide the best care to all patients.” Etter adds.

New construction is always on the move, either by renovating existing buildings and treatment areas, or building new facilities. An example of this is the residential rehabilitation treatment program (RTP) facility built seven years ago for the housing and treatment of veterans suffering from substance use disorder (SUD). The unit has 2 separate buildings with a total of 43 beds in individual rooms. Both male and female veterans are served in this program. It is a national best practice facility, meaning that the rest of the VA centers in the country are encouraged to follow the guidelines of this program as they set up similar programs in their area. There are 70 different treatment program modalities available to veterans using SUD services, so that each patient can receive individualized assistance during their recovery.

17% of the military population is female so the Lebanon center is expanding its services to women. 47,000 vets are treated at Lebanon VAMC and out of these over 4,000 are female. Considering this, the Lebanon VAMC is currently adding two wings to its current building, one which will include a special space for women’s health care. One of these wings will be completed by 2023.

Services provided by veteran and other church and community groups is of great value to the medical center, including music, bingo, game night, contests, meals and treats, patient visits, small gifts, providing masks during COVID, and monetary donations. “We are so grateful for the outpouring of community support and know that we could not do all of this without community response and commitment. I am so humbled by the generosity of the community,” Etter says.

He also states that only 30% of veterans who are eligible for care use VA medical services because they have not enrolled. He adds that the PACT Act, new legislation that expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, will help provide generations of veterans and their survivors with the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve. Paperwork for filing for these benefits has been reduced and the hope is that this will spur more veterans to sign up for the medical benefits they are entitled to. In terms of quality indicators, a study done by Rand Corporation showed that in forty-seven metrics of patient care and services, the VA beat the civilian sector in forty-six areas and tied in the other one. Etter points out that the more veterans using VA health services the more funds will be allocated by Congress, thus using these services helps provide more federal money for veterans’ services.

Etter closes by stating, “I want to tell you how proud I am to work here, how proud I am of my fellow employees who genuinely care, genuinely work hard, and genuinely put veterans first. I love walking through the facility halls and seeing the interactions between staff and patients. I love attending events and having veterans come up to me and tell me how grateful they are for the services they received from us.”

And, from Harrisburg Magazine – Thank you Lebanon VAMC and all veteran centers throughout our country. Thank you for all you do to serve those who bravely served our country. 7

The Lebanon VAMC website is www.va.gov/lebanon-health-care and their Facebook page is lebanon va medical center.

The Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255, Press 1. The main phone line is 1-800-409-8771.