PORTLAND — Portland’s newest medical practice opened quietly last week, and already it has about 1,200 patients.

It’s expected to have thousands more as soon as it can expand its medical staff.

The shiny new office at 144 Fore St. is the ninth outpatient clinic opened by VA Maine Healthcare System in Maine, and the first one in Greater Portland. Until now, veterans who had to see their doctors routinely went to the nearest clinic, in Saco, or to the Togus Veterans Hospital near Augusta.

“It’s a lot more convenient,” said Peter Bernaiche, a Marine Corps veteran who is recovering from a knee injury he suffered in Afghanistan.

Bernaiche lives in South Portland, minutes away from the new clinic. The last time he had to see a doctor, he drove to Togus. The trip to the doctor’s office took several hours, he said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has had outpatient clinics in Maine since it opened its first one in Caribou 20 years ago. The clinics nearest to Portland are in Saco and Auburn.

The federal agency focused first on rural parts of the state because veterans in those areas had fewer medical options than veterans in cities like Portland, said Karen Tibbetts, director of the Portland clinic.

On the other hand, she said, there are more veterans here than in other parts of the state, and many are traveling more than 50 miles for care.

“Half of the veterans in Maine live in the southern part of the state,” Tibbetts said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is to take the health care to where the veterans are.”

Maine is home to about 120,000 veterans, about 40,000 of whom are enrolled in the VA health care network. For those who are enrolled, the VA serves as the insurer and the medical provider.

The new outpatient clinic near Portland’s eastern waterfront looks and operates like a typical medical practice. There are differences, including the home-based care provided to homebound vets. Doctors on house calls carry laptops to access medical records, along with their stethoscopes and black bags.

The VA is leasing the newly renovated space on Fore Street, which used to be occupied by XPress Copy.

Portland has for years had a VA mental health clinic, which treats about 1,000 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. That operation moved last week to the Fore Street building, where it will expand services and integrate with the new primary care clinic.

The medical clinic will take several months to gear up to full capacity.

It now has two half-time physicians, who worked previously at the Saco clinic. Each one brought in about 600 of their patients who live in the Portland area.

Tibbetts said the clinic plans to add providers, but a statewide shortage of primary care doctors means it will take time.

“It’s really going to be fall before we’re ready to take on new patients,” she said.

The VA expects to have 3,500 patients in Portland by the end of this year.

Saco, by comparison, has about 6,000 patients.

In the long run, the clinic in Portland is expected to become one of the largest in the state. It eventually will have a variety of specialists, including a cardiologist and an endocrinologist, Tibbetts said.

Mark Giobbi of Old Orchard Beach, a veteran who served in Korea, has been getting his medical care in Saco and his counseling for post-traumatic stress in Portland.

He said the mental health clinic’s move to Fore Street is already more convenient for patients.

He said he is looking forward to signing up with one of the new physicians in Portland so he can see his doctor and his counselor in the same place.

“I just want to get all my treatment here,” he said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]