Psychiatric Hospital for Military Opens Amid VA Funding SNAFU

From right to left, House member Bob Herron, Lt. Gen. Russell Handy, Adjudant General Laurie Hummel, Taya Kyle in Blue, and Allen Miller, CEO of UHS. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
From right to left, House member Bob Herron, Lt. Gen. Russell Handy, Adjudant General Laurie Hummel, Taya Kyle center in blue, and Allen Miller, CEO of UHS. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

The state’s only facility specializing in acute and long-term care for military members held its official opening ceremony in Anchorage on Tuesday.

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The Chris Kyle Patriots Hospital is named after U.S. Navy Seal featured in the film “American Sniper,” who was killed in 2013 by another veteran. The new facility aims to continue Kyle’s work aiding service members, and its opening comes as healthcare systems serving Alaska’s military are struggling to meet demand.

Beneath a tent in the facility’s East Anchorage parking lot local and state politicians lunched with military brass and business leaders. But the guest of honor was Taya Kyle, wife of Chris Kyle, who believes the facility’s name recognition will guide more service members towards help.

“I hope that because Chris was so open about his struggles it helps (others) know that the people who want help them here see them as tough, and see them as strong,” Kyle said.  “Getting help is really just fighting your way back–it’s the polar opposite of being weak.”

The 36-bed center focuses on acute psychiatric care: up to 28 days of in-patient treatment for PTSD, addiction, and counseling. Most of the staff served in the armed forces, and know first-hand the resistance many service members feel towards treatment. Closing that gap is a part of her late-husband’s work that Kyle wants to see continued.

20 members of the Military Youth Academy were on hand to help with the ceremony. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
20 members of the Military Youth Academy were on hand to help with the ceremony. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

“There are a number of stories of people who probably wouldn’t tell a whole a lot of people what they were going through,” Kyle said, “but they would tell Chris because they trusted him.”

The stakes are high. Depending on who’s statistics you use, up to 22 veterans a day commit suicide. That figure doesn’t account for other symptoms of mental anguish: broken marriages, isolation, or substance abuse. Before the rapt audience under the tent, Alaska’s top-ranking military officer, Lieutenant General Russell Handy spoke of a soldier named Gus stationed at JBER who took his life.

“Although all signs at work and at home were that we were improving, we lost him a couple of months ago,” Handy said. “As hard as he tried, he couldn’t beat the demons that were in his head.”

“A lot of times our active duty service members in particular prefer not to be in the general population,” explained Dr. Andy Mayo, CEO of the North Star Behavioral Health System, which owns and operates the Chris Kyle center. “Some of the issues they have are distinctly different that what you’ll find in the civilian population.”

The new center is one of 14 similar facilities designed specifically to address acute mental health needs among service members. The franchise is owned by Universal Health Services, a fortune 500 company. North Star and UHS are taking advantage of a gap in care amid a rising need.

“Knowing the market is really important,” Mayo explained. “There is no other specialty hospital in the state of Alaska.”

Prior to its opening in April, active duty soldiers who needed long-term psychiatric care had to either go either out of state or be institutionally committed.

There are 73,397 veterans in Alaska, roughly three-times the number of active duty military personnel, which hovers around 23,000. But less than half of the state’s vets–about 31,000 according to the director of the Department of Military and Veterans affairs, Verdie Bowen– are accessing care in VA facilities. So while wait-times for mental health treatment are generally low, a big part of that is because care options are under-used.

“We know that the need is there,” said Albert Wall, director of the state’s Division of Behavioral Health. “If everybody that needed that service came out it would swamp the system and there wouldn’t be the availability.”

Veterans are not able to access the Chris Kyle Center for now, unless they pay out of pocket.

Owing to policy and fiscal changes at a national level, the VA blew past its budget and slowed down referrals to outside providers. The situation has created a bottle-neck for veterans trying to access treatment, delaying procedures and interrupting care that has been routine for years. As it stands, the one payment source still available is a private contractor, TriWest, that is not yet set up to handle insurance at the new center. State officials are optimistic the issue will be resolved in the months ahead.

Of the 14 facilities in the Patriot Support Program within UHS's 227 healthcare facilities, many of which specialize in acute care, this is the only one named after an individual. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Of the 14 facilities in the Patriot Support Program within UHS’s 227 healthcare facilities, many of which specialize in acute care, this is the only one named after an individual. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

This is the only facility named for Chris Kyle, and as per an agreement with the family it will retain the name in perpetuity, even if ownership changes. Taya Kyle was not personally compensated for the naming rights. However the company is in discussions over making a donation to a either a scholarship or a charitable foundation she oversees.

“I love that it’s in Alaska,” Kyle said. She and her husband visited once on a vacation cruise through Southeast, and wanted to spend more time in the state. That, combined with the high number of veterans, and a vision of healing complemented by the hospital’s approach, led Kyle to lend her support to the project. “It just feels right.”