Column: Hefner VA is economic jewel
By Art Steinberg
Special to the Post
The Hefner VA Medical Center is the third-largest employer in Rowan County, and its past and present employees and patients have contributed to Salisbury’s economy. The community-based facility serves 287,000 veterans in the central Piedmont and brings large numbers of people to Salisbury for treatment. Its national reputation and accreditation illustrate the quality of service offered.
The Salisbury branch of the Veterans Affairs hospital system opened in 1953 after the Korean War. The facility treated soldiers whose injuries were very different from the wounds today’s soldiers have when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan. While Vietnam had its traps for American soldiers, Iraq has IEDs ó improvised explosive devices ó designed to maim, not kill. Work with paraplegics and amputees has brought a whole new set of challenges to Salisbury. These veterans are younger than before, more educated and computer-literate. The Hefner Center has had to innovate and devise new approaches to assisting the injured veterans.
The VA has instituted a program for teaching veterans new skills. As with veterans from previous wars, they receive medical attention for service-connected injury and their disability. Medical boards determine eligibility.
Now that women serve in combat zones, the VA’s responsibilities have grown. An active women’s center now exists. Female veterans receive a wide range of physical and mental support from clinics designed specifically to deal with their issues and needs. They include bone density examinations, prenatal care and other services specifically intended for female veterans.
The Salisbury VA opened with approximately 300 personnel on a campus of 151 acres. It has expanded to a workforce of approximately 1,800 employees today. Due to congressional funds provided by the “HUB” program and Congress, the number of dedicated personnel has fluctuated.
This “jewel” to the economics of the county cannot be measured in terms of dollars. However, the center’s growing employment has contributed to the housing market and provided employment to the spouses of many employees, such as teaching and other careers that help make Rowan a viable community.
Estimates of the VA’s overall financial contribution to the county range from $10 million to $40 million a year. The facility includes 159 hospital beds, 270 nursing home beds and 55 psychiatric residential treatment beds, or 484 beds available should the need arise.
Although the facility began as a psychiatric institution, its role was expanded. Greater contributions come from the number of medical and dental personnel and specialists in a multitude of fields. Educational and vocational centers have been developed to integrate veterans, many of whom have a military-related injury, into civilian life and the workforce.
Veterans unable to travel to the Salisbury facility can avail themselves of the VA facilities in Winston-Salem, Hickory and Charlotte. The rural health initiative sends medical personnel to rural areas and the home health institute provides equipment for their residence. A 12-bed unit opened on Sept. 28. Chiropractors, a recent addition, work at the facility. Dental clinics, sleep laboratories, an audiology clinic and a center for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) exist to help the veteran re-enter society. If they return to the states angry, stressed, jobless, with substance abuse problems, and are undergoing domestic problems, help is available. There are also programs for the homeless and a halfway house. A state-of-the-art outpatient clinic and emergency room are open 24 hours a day.
Many of the personnel working at the VA remain in Salisbury after their tour, thanks to the pleasant local environment and general small town conditions. The result is an ever-improving hospital and medical personnel of numerous specialty fields becoming part of the community. The Hefner center also sponsors research and development programs in a wide range of medical fields.
To examine the full breadth of veterans’ programs, go to www.va.gov.
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Arthur K. Steinberg lives in Salisbury. The Salisbury-Rowan Chamber of Commerce and several members of the VA staff assisted in preparing this commentary.
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