Dr. Kristin Tempco looks in the ears of Stephen Ferguson, 72, of Fort Collins at the VA clinic in Fort Collins. Ferguson served in Vietnam and is a good example of the way the VA treats both physical and mental health, as he recently had a case of late-onset PTSD that the clinic helped him work through. Dan England / for BizWest

Fort Collins VA clinic comes out of shadows

FORT COLLINS — When veterans walk into the Veterans Administration clinic in Fort Collins or Loveland, they might just want to see their doctor. What they get is an army.

There’s a team assigned to every veteran, and that team includes a pharmacist, a social worker and a mental health provider. They’re all there to assess the vet’s overall health, not just diagnose disease.

The system started a couple of years ago, when all that specialized care was integrated into primary care. The VA did it in part to match health-care networks’ advancement, but it also was an acknowledgment that mental health is a big piece of a person’s overall health.

Mental health may be coming into its own after decades of living in the shadows. We now live in an era where Cigna’s latest marketing campaign stars actors such as Ted Danson with the message “your physical and emotional health are more connected than you think.” But it’s a welcome change that in some ways the VA needed to lead, said Sam House, the public affairs officer for the Cheyenne VA Health Care System. Twenty veterans kill themselves every day, and 14 never step foot in a VA clinic.

“There are individuals who need help, for one reason or another, and they’ve never reached out to the VA,” House said. “It’s irritating. Our number-one priority is suicide prevention.”

The Fort Collins clinic plays a role in that. There veterans find many of the same services people expect to find in a physician’s office, but there are also services that specialize in veteran care. These include police officers who know how to talk down an angry vet because they were veterans themselves, and social workers who can help homeless veterans, in additional to mental health professionals who understand PTSD and other common ailments veterans face.

“The advantage of the VA is every single one of our providers are focused only on veterans,” House said. “That’s all we treat. So our providers are able to understand, say, a hearing loss a vet may have that someone in the private sector may not quite understand.”

Dr. Kristin Tempco talks to Stephen Ferguson, 72, of Fort Collins about the circulation in his legs during a recent exam at the VA clinic in Fort Collins. Dan England / for BizWest

Although the awareness is increasing, and veterans are more comfortable talking about their mental health, they still face obstacles that civilians may not understand. House said soldiers are trained to suck it up, not to get in touch with their feelings.

“You learn in basic training that if you (seek help) for your mental health, your career is over,” said House, who spent a good part of his career with the U.S. Army in public affairs. “Maybe that’s not as true these days. But that is what is ingrained in them. They should not talk about it. They just need to get over it.”

The issue, House said, is not combat. The issue is coming home. Soldiers don’t get the kind of training they need to integrate themselves back into society, House said.

“They generally aren’t ready for a lot of stuff,” he said. “That is one of my biggest frustrations as a vet myself. It’s not with the VA system. It’s with the Department of Defense.”

The system generates a lot of demand from veterans, including close to a dozen who stop in daily without appointments. Fort Collins, the largest city in Northern Colorado, is feeling the crunch. The clinic is smaller than most, with nearly 10,000 square feet of space. That will change in a couple of years, when the VA clinic will move to a brand new, 90,000-square-foot building more fitting for a city the size of Fort Collins.

The VA continues to evolve, with telemedicine and whole health offerings such as acupuncture, essential oils and other alternative medicine, in addition to more traditional care such as cancer treatments, and it will continue to expand its mental health treatments.

That helped Stephen Ferguson, 72, of Fort Collins, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. He was recently diagnosed with PTSD after reconnecting with some Vietnam vets and discussing the war. They call it “late onset” PTSD, Ferguson said.

“I didn’t think I was real bad,” he said. “But I did get better.”

FORT COLLINS — When veterans walk into the Veterans Administration clinic in Fort Collins or Loveland, they might just want to see their doctor. What they get is an army.

There’s a team assigned to every veteran, and that team includes a pharmacist, a social worker and a mental health provider. They’re all there to assess the vet’s overall health, not just diagnose disease.

The system started a couple of years ago, when all that specialized care was integrated into primary care. The VA did it in part to match health-care networks’ advancement, but it also was an acknowledgment that mental health is a big piece of a person’s overall health.

Mental health may be coming into its own after decades of living in the shadows. We now live in an era where Cigna’s latest marketing campaign stars actors such as Ted Danson with the message “your physical and emotional health are more connected than you think.” But it’s a welcome change that in some ways the VA needed to lead, said Sam House, the public affairs officer for the Cheyenne VA Health Care System. Twenty veterans kill themselves every day, and 14 never step foot in a VA clinic.

“There are individuals who need help, for one reason or another, and they’ve never reached out to the VA,” House said. “It’s irritating. Our number-one priority is suicide prevention.”

The Fort Collins clinic plays a role in that. There…