September 6, 2011

Veterans dismayed over Maine clinic's closing

Officials cite high costs as the main reason for taking from Bingham the mobile clinic that serves 400.

BINGHAM — During World War II, Joe Bourque of Bingham survived the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.

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Veteran Joe Bourque, who is 92, stands outside the mobile health clinic near his home in Bingham on Sunday. Bourque and others will learn more this Wednesday at a public meeting about why the clinic will close.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

Sixty-seven years later, the 92-year-old wonders whether the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has forgotten his service because it is closing a clinic where he gets some of his medical care.

A mobile medical clinic for veterans that has been stationed in Bingham for two years is scheduled to shut down Oct. 1. The closure will force 400 military members from Somerset, Franklin and Piscataquis counties to get medical help at the far-away VA Maine Healthcare System in Togus, outside of Augusta, or the Bangor Community Based Outpatient Clinic.

"From Bingham to Togus is 150 miles round trip, and if you don't feel good it's a long ways to go," Bourque said. "I think the veterans deserve better."

The 53-foot medical trailer's future is the focus of a meeting Wednesday that is bringing together VA representatives, staff for U.S. senators and a congressman, and veterans and their families. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the American Legion Stanley Beane Post on Meadow Street in Bingham.

Officials cite high costs as the primary reason for removing the mobile clinic, which provides checkups and basic blood work for veterans. It is next to the Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance Service at 241 Main St.

Closing it will save the VA Maine Healthcare System between $100,000 and $200,000 in annual operating costs, said the system's associate director, Ryan Lilly. Patient visits to the clinic are twice as expensive as those in an office setting, he said.

Veterans across the region, though, enjoyed having the service nearby, said Bingham Selectman Steve Steward.

"If you need a simple test, you shouldn't have to drive 100 miles to get it," Steward said. "They're old. They're tired. They're veterans. They've earned this privilege."

Veterans in Jackman will have to drive five hours, round trip, to see a doctor in the VA Maine Healthcare System. For Bingham residents, it will be three hours. From Skowhegan or Guilford, it will be two hours and from Greenville, four hours.

Some veterans don't travel well, especially if they're sick, Steward said. "You're taking away part of their dignity," he said.

Steward referred to the $60 billion lost to waste and fraud in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over the last decade, as recently reported by news media across the U.S. "And they're whining about this little facility over here? I have a grave issue with that. That's just wrong," he said.

Some veterans say they simply won't go to Togus if they can't go to the clinic in Bingham, said Dodie Mathieu, an emergency medical technician for the Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance Service.

"I don't think they'll get the care they need," she said. "It's too long to travel. It takes too much out of them."

She sometimes has to drive to New Vineyard to pick up her 60-year-old father to bring him to Togus. It's a treacherous drive in the winter, she said, describing a time last year when she went off the road.

Lilly said the closure is unfortunate, but the veterans agency will study how to make up for the clinic's loss. It's possible that veterans could use a "telehelp" device, allowing patients to confer with a medical care provider through a teleconferencing system, he said.

Veterans Affairs has not specifically considered subletting space from the Bingham Area Health Center, next door to the mobile clinic, he said.

"That would obviously represent a cost," Lilly said. Also, subletting space is not as easy as it sounds; the VA has a process it must follow that includes putting a contract out to bid.

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