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FDRHPO director Denise Young in her Watertown office.
FDRHPO director Denise Young in her Watertown office.

Earmark builds health care assets around Fort Drum

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Over the next month, we'll hear a lot about earmarks, also known as "pork." They're the district-specific pet projects of members of Congress. The new Republican-led House has vowed to ban earmarks, or at least strictly curtail them.

We've all heard about the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." But for every one of those earmarks, there are many others that are filling a need in a community.

Fort Drum near Watertown is the only Army base in the country without its own hospital. Soldiers and their families rely on doctors and clinics in Jefferson, Lewis, and southern St. Lawrence counties. A $400,000 earmark funds an organization thats building health care assets for soldiers and civilians alike. avid Sommerstein reports.

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Elizabeth Kimmick, Brantingham, is training to become a nurse in the North Country.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

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Denise Young looks out her office window overlooking Watertown’s Public Square and grins.  She’s a Tug Hill native and she likes the look of a fresh foot of snow.

As you can see right now, it’s all lit up for Christmas, and it’s beautiful.  And we really feel like we’re at the heart of the action that’s happening in the Fort Drum region just by being here.

Young directs the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization.  It goes by the not-so-nifty acronym, FDRHPO.

It’s been all action at Fort Drum this decade.  Thousands more soldiers.  Tons of new construction on post.  All to support constant rotations in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Young says because there’s no hospital on post, the community health care system had to step up.

When a soldier gets deployed, he deserves to know that his family here in our community is going to be taken care of.  They are serving us and we need to serve them.

So five years ago, an earmark from then-Congressman, now-Secretary of the Army, Republican John McHugh created the FDRHPO.  Its goal – to be the glue between the military and civilian health care worlds.  It helps soldiers connect with private practice physicians.

This is a novelty for many military families.  A positive one, says Stephanie Burke.  Her family moved to Fort Drum last spring.  They had known mostly on-base military hospitals.  Burke says sometimes her medical records were lost.  Assigned doctors didn’t know her childrens’ names or histories.  At Fort Drum, she says it’s better.

My husband, first thing when he in-processed, he called me on his cell phone and he said, wait, you get civilian doctors, you get to go off post, you get to choose who you want to go to, and so you’re very excited about that.

In its first five years, the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization has tackled a military-wide problem – a shortage of mental health clinics to deal with PTSD and the effects of multiple deployments on families.  It helped triple the number of mental health providers in the region.  There are four new mental health outpatient clinics.  And still that’s barely keeping up.

To get an appointment can take up to three, four weeks.

Retired soldier Jim Sheets works at the relatively new Vet Center in Watertown.  He’s studying to be a social worker in a program brought here by the FDRHPO.  He says half the students want to become mental health counselors.

You’re gonna have 20 people who’s right back in this area providing services.

The Health Planning Organization also has grants to digitize medical records and run fiberoptic cable between the region’s five hospitals.  Director Denise Young says a 400,000 dollar a year earmark has leveraged 100 million dollars in projects.

The earmark is the catalyst to bring all of these resources to bear in this region to improve the health care system.

[sound up at hospital]

30 miles away in Lowville, Doctor Steve Lyndaker rushes through the halls of Lewis County General Hospital.

It’s my gopher day, where I go for this, go for that.

You could argue that all these changes around Fort Drum would have happened without the earmark, without the FDRHPO.  Lyndaker disagrees.  He says someone needed to bring big institutions like hospitals and the Army together.

We wouldn’t be talking about this, quite honestly, if Denise Young didn’t write a grant proposal.

The FDRHPO doesn’t just help the military.  All patients will benefit from digital record-sharing.  And the FDRHPO is reaching out to local youth to grow the next generation of doctors and nurses.

[sound up of JCC student center]

It’s lunchtime at the Jefferson Community College student center in Watertown.  Liz Kimmick – in a white lab coat - takes a quick study break.  She’s in the first year of a nursing program.

Today I went to the hospital this morning for about two hours and met with my patient that I’m going to be taking care of tomorrow.  Got to know them, went through their charts, so for the rest of the day, I’m going to be looking up their medications and getting ready for the day.

Kimmick’s from Brantingham, in the western Adirondack foothills.  The Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization reached out to her in high school, when she joined its paid internship program.  Kimmick says it gives young people a chance to try out health care.

Give them a real feel of what it’s like to be involved in the health field, because it is completely different from our ideas.  And they also want to help to keep people in the area, so train them here and keep them and then get them back into our hospitals, Lowville, Carthage, Samaritan.

Now she wants to work at her hometown hospital, Lewis County General, where we met Dr. Lyndaker.

Rural communities nationwide suffer from a shortage of doctors and nurses.  Watertown City Manager Mary Corriveau says the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization is building the region’s health care assets.

Everyone feels it.  Not just soldiers, not just their family members, but everyone in the community has benefitted from it.

Democrat Bill Owens will be the one defending the FDRHPO’s earmark in the next Congress.  He says it plays a critical role.

An organization that is able to do the coordination and analysis of the needs of both the local population and the troops at Fort Drum and their families, so this has played a critical role.

FDRHPO director Denise Young says her organization transcends politics.  It takes care of the people who fight for our country.  And she says she’s “absolutely confident” it will survive the battle over earmarks.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Watertown.

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