LEWISTON — The strength and variety of services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs at its new clinic here will depend on how many people use it, the head of the VA in New England said Tuesday.
“The more veterans that come, the more services we will be able to provide,” said Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, director of the VA New England Healthcare System.
About 2,500 veterans have visited the clinic since it opened in February near Maine Turnpike Exit 80 on Challenger Drive. In less than a year, the VA hopes to more than double its staff of 20 or so to about 50 and to see many more veterans.
Eventually, the clinic is expected to serve between 5,500 and 6,500 veterans, said Ryan Lilly, associate director of the VA Maine Healthcare System.
With each added veteran, the clinic will be stronger, Mayo-Smith said.
The message came as legislators and VA leaders cut a ceremonial ribbon at the $20 million facility, celebrating the clinic that has been seeing patients since February.
Among the attendees were U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, first lady Ann LePage and lots of veterans. Many had worked for eight years to bring the clinic to Lewiston.
“This is the best,” said Jerry DeWitt, one of the veterans who lobbied the VA to build the clinic here. He smiled as an Air Force band celebrated the opening. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
There had been tough times, though. In April, DeWitt and others discovered that the VA had decided not to offer previously promised specialties, including optometry and audiology. They complained to the VA and to Michaud. The congressman demanded answers and the VA reversed course again, restoring the specialties.
During Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting, Mayo-Smith praised Michaud and others for their tenacity.
“They’re not unreasonable pressures,” Mayo-Smith said. He said the restoration of the specialties was a matter of the VA staying true to its word.
“It became clear that those things had been committed to,” Mayo-Smith said. “There it was in black and white. We said we were going to do that. I don’t care what our current planning approach is. We’re going to follow through and that’s that. We can’t go and break promises.”
However, he hinted that the longevity of programs at the clinic — a community-based outpatient clinic, in VA parlance — will depend on veterans’ use of the facility.
“A lot of times, veterans say to us, ‘We don’t want to come to the VA because we want to save it for somebody else. We don’t want to take services from some other veteran,’” Mayo-Smith said. “The way the VA works is, we get resources based on the number of veterans we see. So, if more veterans come, we get more resources.”
There’s a certain overhead to maintaining services, he said. “We have to make sure we have the population to support the need for a service, so you don’t hire an audiologist and (then) they’re not really busy.”
There are also demands for services at other VA locations.
“Togus isn’t that far away, and we’re planning eventually to put a lot more services in Portland,” he said. “(Lewiston-Auburn) is kind of an intermediate area.”
Michaud said Tuesday that he will keep an eye on services.
“We’ll be watching very carefully as the clinic continues to grow, as well as the type and quality of services that they’re providing veterans in this particular region of the state,” he said.
Though it has been operating for six months, the clinic is slowly taking on more roles. The staff includes three primary care doctors and their support staff, Lilly said. It also includes a pharmacist and two mental health workers. Two more doctor teams are planned. Still-to-come specialties include cardiology, hearing and vision care, urology and radiology.
Hiring for those specialties takes time, Lilly said.
DeWitt, who has been a patient at the center, said he understands the need for time, but he is impatient.
“You know veterans,” DeWitt said. “We want everything now.”