AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Veterans Affairs mobile medical clinic in Bingham will remain open after all, a VA official said Monday.
The VA decided to continue operating the mobile unit in Bingham for now essentially “because of input from various stakeholders and, most importantly, the veterans themselves,” said Ryan Lilly, associate director of the Maine Veterans’ Affairs Healthcare Systems, referring to a meeting last Wednesday at which nearly 150 veterans and citizens voiced their anger about the discontinuation of the mobile health clinic in town.
“It’s democracy at its finest,” he said. “It’s listening to the people that you serve. I think we underestimated the amount of animosity [the closing of the clinic] was going to cause.”
It was announced early last week that the mobile clinic would discontinue operations in Bingham within weeks. Under a pilot program that began in 2009, the clinic provided primary care, mental health and lab services to veterans on a rotating basis in Bingham, Jackman, Greenville and Dover-Foxcroft until last January. Since then it has operated only in Bingham.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, praised the VA for its action.
“This mobile unit is an important part of our efforts to improve access to health care for rural veterans. It helps hundreds of Maine veterans get the health care they need closer to home, and I’m pleased with the VA’s decision to keep it running. Our veterans shouldn’t be forced to drive hours to get basic health care,” the 2nd District Democrat said in a press release. “As I’ve said before, if they ever discontinue the operation of the mobile clinic, the least VA can do is find an alternative means of providing care locally.”
The unit will remain open until either a suitable permanent clinic can be found or until the mobile unit can be better suited for the full-time job. Lilly said the VA is in early discussions on what the next step will be. He couldn’t put a timetable on when a permanent solution will be found.
“I think it’s really going to come down to either making the existing unit more economical or it’s time to explore alternative means,” said Lilly.
The mobile clinic is open in Bingham twice a week and area veterans have been pleased with the care they have received.
“This personal care I get right here in Bingham is phenomenal. Because you call Togus [in Augusta] and you get a machine. They’ll get back to you some day or never, whichever comes first,” veteran Ross Fortier of Guilford during Wednesday’s meeting.
The biggest contention during last week’s meeting was the distance people in the area would have to drive in order to receive health care. Some said it wasn’t possible for elderly veterans to make the trip to Bangor or Augusta, the next closest options.
Kelley Wynne, a member of the Maine Veterans’ Home board of trustees who attended last week’s meeting, was excited to hear the news.
“That’s just terrific. That’s great,” said Wynne. “I’m glad for the veterans up north.”