Juneau VA clinic to open in March

Southeast home to about 7,600 veterans of whom 1,750 are enrolled in VA health care services

Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vietnam veteran Michael Walsh is looking forward to a Veterans Affairs medical clinic opening in Juneau next spring so former service members won't need to travel to Anchorage or beyond for routine health care.

"It's a lot more convenient," he said. "A lot of people here in Juneau won't have to travel anywhere for something that we need right away."

Walsh, who serves as adjutant for the local chapter of the health advocacy organization Disabled American Veterans, said it can take extended periods of time for Southeast Alaskan veterans to set up appointments in Anchorage for simple needs.

"What the clinic does here is it helps the vets get immediate attention," he said. "They don't have to wait, sometimes several weeks, to go to the clinic."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to open a health clinic in the Juneau Federal Building around March. The original plan called for the Juneau clinic to open in fall 2008. The space on the first floor of the Federal Building has been identified, the design is complete and work should begin on the facility in the near future, VA Alaska public affairs officer Marcia Hoffman-DeVoe said.

The VA has facilities in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai and Wasilla. About 10 percent, or roughly 7,600, Alaska veterans call Southeast home.

"Right now, only 1,750 of those veterans have actually signed up and enrolled in the VA for health care services," Hoffman-DeVoe said. "We're anticipating once we have a clinic open there that the number of veterans enrolling for health care will increase, simply because there will be a clinic closer to where they are living."

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Farmer, who has 100 percent disability from his time of service, is worried that the clinic will add another round of red tape for veterans who need care for chronic conditions.

"While, yeah, sure it would be great to think that a clinic here in town would actually help veterans, in the end I think it's going to do nothing but duplicate some services and waste a lot of money because they are not going to provide the services that people truly need, so they'll probably still wind up sending people to Anchorage," he said.

Even some of the simpler medical needs, such as filling prescriptions, may become bogged down in more bureaucracy, which is already at a frustrating level as it is, Farmer said.

"What basically it's going to do is not fill the need and add another level of unnecessary things to go through," he said.

Farmer believes the VA already wastes a lot of money and he feels it will likely spend more by continuing to send people to Anchorage for treatment when they could approve certain services through the private sector in Juneau for less money. Farmer, who has a history of cancer, said he has been waiting for weeks to have a lump removed from his chest that doctors told him should already have been removed. He couldn't get the surgery scheduled through the VA in Anchorage until Dec. 9.

"So I'm sitting here with a ticking time bomb in my chest and they can't speed anything up and I can't do anything here (in Juneau)," he said.

The VA currently sends a medical provider to Juneau once a month to meet with patients. The new clinic will provide basic primary care services, preventive health care and some mental health services. The clinic will employ about eight people.

Walsh, who served in Vietnam in 1968, said he thinks the clinic will work well for people who live in the surrounding communities. It will be cheaper for them to get medical services in Juneau rather than traveling all the way to Anchorage, he said.

"It's most definitely very, very helpful to have that clinic here," Walsh said. "Will it add any difficulty to them? No, I think it will only makes things better for the veterans."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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