BINGHAM – In a reversal that surprised veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that it will continue to operate a mobile medical clinic that serves 400 veterans from a wide rural area.

“We’ve listened to the concerns of veterans and their families,” said Brian Stiller, director of the VA Maine Healthcare System, in a prepared statement.

If the clinic had closed, veterans — many of them elderly or ill — would have been forced to travel two to five hours round-trip to reach other providers within their health care system.

Jack Lord, a Coast Guard veteran from Bingham, was one of about 120 people who attended a meeting in town last week to urge federal representatives not to close the clinic, which for two years has provided checkups for veterans in Somerset, Franklin and Piscataquis counties as part of a pilot program.

On Monday, he said he was surprised by the decision to keep the clinic in town. “I am very, very happy,” Lord said.

“I was shocked … I didn’t have 100 percent faith that we were going to get a second chance to keep this here.”

Ryan Lilly, associate director of the VA Maine Healthcare System, said the clinic will remain open indefinitely, while a study determines the most efficient way to provide medical care for veterans in the area. The clinic at 241 Main St. was set to close Oct. 1.

The recommendations from the study “may or may not include a mobile clinic in the future,” Lilly said. The decision is “obviously a reversal from last week.”

The study panel will be convened immediately, Lilly said, and will work with veterans and their families to ensure that recommendations meet patients’ needs.

Monday’s announcement drew praise from local and federal officials who fought to prevent the closure.

“This is great news. It should stay here,” said Bingham Selectman Steve Steward.

The clinic’s closure had been projected to save the VA Maine Healthcare System $100,000 to $200,000 in annual operating costs. Steward said, “These guys gave a heck of a lot more than $200,000 as their tenure as veterans. That’s peanuts when it comes to the whole big picture.”

“We’re just very, very pleased that they agreed to the request and are providing us with some good news,” said Ed Gilman, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health.

The congressman and his staff made “multiple calls on behalf of the local veterans to the VA,” Gilman said.

U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both R-Maine, also opposed the planned closure. The senators released a joint statement Monday that expressed satisfaction with the VA’s decision and reiterated their willingness to continue to make sure veterans have access to medical care.

Joe Penich, commander of the American Legion Stanley Beane Post in Bingham, where last week’s meeting was held, said he hopes people will work to keep the clinic in town permanently.

“We’re very ecstatic about it,” Penich said. “I would say ‘thank you’ for taking into consideration saving the clinic for the time being anyway, and we look forward to working with the VA towards a more permanent-type clinic in the Bingham area.”

The VA Maine Healthcare System provides care at 12 sites in Maine. They include clinics in Bangor and Portland, as well as the main campus at VA Medical Center at Togus, outside Augusta.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Erin Rhoda can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:

erhoda[email protected]