Veterans across the eastern portion of Kansas have no shortage of locations to receive health care.

The VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, with an annual budget of $330 million, provides care to about 40,500 veteran patients.

The organization's 1,900 full-time employees serve at VA locations in Topeka, Leavenworth and Junction City, as well as eight other community clinics throughout eastern Kansas and western Missouri.

Joseph L. Burks, spokesman for the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, said the role of the VA is to "provide the best care anywhere by providing accessible, courteous, comprehensive, and quality health care to veterans in an environment of excellence."

The VA's vision, Burks said, can be summed up as follows:

• Promote the health and wellness of the veteran population.

• Achieve distinction as a quality patient-driven health care system that provides the full range of medical, behavioral, rehabilitative and preventive services to veterans and others.

• Improve clinical care through research, education and creative administration to become a model for the future.

Burks added: "Our organization’s motto is 'Honoring Our Veterans… Healing Our Heroes.' We own it, and we take this very seriously."

Burks said the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System is a two-division Joint Commission-accredited health care system serving veterans throughout 20,000 square miles and 37 counties in eastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri.

In addition to the two main campuses in Topeka and Leavenworth, the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System operates seven rural health clinics in Kansas in Chanute, Emporia, Fort Scott, Garnett, Junction City, Kansas City and Lawrence.

In Leavenworth, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center had its beginning in 1884, Burks said. By 1886, 17 buildings had been completed.

The Leavenworth VA hospital has about 200 beds. At present, there are 12 medical beds in one unit under construction. After construction, there will be 17 total beds. There is also a six-bed intensive care unit, a 22-bed Community Living Center and a 150-bed domiciliary. The emergency department currently has seven beds but will expand after construction.

In Topeka, the Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center once was known as the Winter VA hospital. The Winter VA hospital, along with the Menninger Clinic, set up the largest psychiatric training center in the country after World War II.

The Topeka VA hospital has about 160 beds. The general medical-surgical unit has 17 beds; intensive care unit, four; acute psychiatry unit, 17; Stress Disorder Treatment Program, 22; Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Wellness Program, 17; Sunflower Memory Care unit for dementia patients, 12; and Geriatric Care unit, 15. The emergency department has eight beds, which will expand after construction. The Fresh Start unit will have 17 beds after it reopens later this year, and the Community Living Center will have 17 beds when it opens this summer.

Among early leaders of the Topeka VA Medical Center was Karl A. Menninger, who was the director of the facility from 1945 to 1948. The Topeka VA Medical Center also can claim another leader, Harry W. Colmery, who is credited with writing the draft of what became the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more popularly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights.

On March 15, 1989, the Veterans Administration was elevated to cabinet status, becoming the Department of Veterans Affairs. Nine years later, Burks said, the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth and the Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center in Topeka were integrated, forming the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System.

Burks said most of the organization's patients come from northwest Missouri and eastern Kansas, adding, "However, with several of our specialty units, we have referrals from around the country."

An assessment of demographic trends for VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System finds that while the number of living veterans has been declining, the number of veterans using VA health care has increased substantially during the past two decades. This has resulted from expanded eligibility and higher reliance on VA health services by newer veterans.

Projections show demand will continue to increase, Burks said, before leveling off or even declining over the subsequent decade.

"The decline is the result of the passing of World War II veterans, the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing decline in the size of the veteran population," Burks said. "Changes in eligibility, newly diagnosed military diseases or another protracted military conflict will influence our future health care needs."

He added: "Future demands project our nation's veterans on average have elevated rates of many health conditions, when compared to non-veterans. Veterans who rely on the VA for health care have higher rates of chronic conditions and mental illness than veterans who do not use the VA health system. All of these issues contribute to the veteran population for which we serve.

"To meet demands of the future, VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System will continue to substantially increase its capacity outside the two parent hospitals at Leavenworth and Topeka and into the communities. A mixed strategy will be needed that includes hiring more providers, granting VA advanced practice nurses full practice authority, expanding use of virtual care and making strategic use of purchased care."

Burks said VA Eastern Kansas uses the Strategic Capital Improvement Planning and Integrated Master Planning process to identify current and future capital needs.

Said Burks, "Future demands indicate a significant expansion in the capabilities offered in the Manhattan area and several new services at the Topeka campus, including Positron Emission Tomography scan capability, consolidating and expanding ophthalmology-optometry services into an eye center, and growing the new community care program."

At the Topeka campus, Burks said, "Future capital improvements include modernizing and expanding the Behavioral Health Outpatient clinic, consolidating and expanding inpatient geriatric services, modifying surgical services and gastroenterology to better meet the patient’s need, and the construction of a new Day Treatment Center."

At the Leavenworth campus, Burks said: "We will be strengthening the specialty care service capabilities to better meet the veteran’s needs. Projects include building and expanding a new Behavioral Health Outpatient Clinic, modernizing and expanding optometry and ophthalmology, and modernizing the entire operative and perioperative areas. A new pain clinic is currently in development that will include services such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, acupuncture, chiropractic, biofeedback, a guided imagery-mindfulness and pain school."

Both medical center campuses will receive new, state-of-the-art emergency departments that will provide 24/7 access to care for veterans.

Burks said the VA also is making efforts to prevent suicide among veterans.

"Suicide prevention is the VA’s highest clinical priority," Burks said, "and we at VA Eastern Kansas take this nationwide problem seriously and personally. One life lost to suicide is one too many."