DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Leaning on a cane for support, Clayton Lancaster, 78, climbed a few metal steps and walked past an American flag flapping in the breeze to enter one of the newest mobile health care clinics for veterans in the country.
The Air Force veteran from Dexter already had scouted out the new clinic when it arrived last Tuesday on the Mayo Regional Hospital campus, and he came back the next day for an appointment.
“This is great,” Lancaster said of the spacious and bright mobile health care clinic, one of only four in the country. “I used to have to drive clear to Bangor [for medical care]. Now I can get my prescriptions and stuff a lot earlier than going to Bangor to straighten things out. It saves me about four trips to Bangor a year.”
Lancaster and other veterans from rural Piscataquis, Somerset and Franklin counties all responded to the country’s call to travel far and wide to help protect the nation’s freedom, and now the country has stepped in to ensure that these same veterans have to travel less for their health care.
The Office of Rural Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded the state a federal grant to custom-build a 53-foot trailer with a 38-foot “slider” — an extension from the side — and operate it as an outreach health care clinic. The three-year grant funds $600,000 each year for the operation of the mobile health clinic, which provides primary care, mental health and lab services to veterans on a rotating basis in Bingham, Jackman, Greenville and Dover-Foxcroft.
“What we’re doing is we’re establishing more of a VA presence in those areas,” Jim Doherty, a VA spokesman, said recently. The mobile health clinic is a pilot project that will be monitored by not only the state but also the federal government, he noted. “We’re continuing to reach out and provide quality health care to veterans in their local communities, trying to make it convenient for them, and that’s what we’re looking forward to with this.”
Nationwide, the VA also has 50 smaller recreational vehicles set up to do only mental health care and counseling, and Maine has two of those — one based in Lewiston and the other in Caribou — that travel around to serve veterans, according to Doherty. Those units also can be used during catastrophic events such as a flood since they are equipped with a generator, shower, toilet and microwave and have satellite service, he said.
Veterans also have access to a fixed-site health care clinic in Machias, and full-time clinics in Bangor, Calais, Caribou, Rumford, Lincoln and Saco. Another clinic is expected to be on line in 18 months in Lewiston, according to Doherty. In addition, there are part-time health clinics in Houlton and Fort Kent, a stand-alone mental health unit in Portland and the VA Medical Center at Togus, where veterans can get specialty care.
Those locations, however, have required a lengthy drive for residents in Piscataquis and remote parts of Somerset and Franklin counties to get access to VA health care — until now.
“There’s not enough concentration of veterans to establish a fixed site, so we’re doing this to provide them health care, both physical and mental health in their communities,” Doherty said of the VA’s mobile units.
Doherty said the VA contracted with a Maine company, Atlantic Defense, which has offices in Greenville, Old Town and Westbrook, to provide a tractor-trailer cab and a driver to move the big new trailer from location to location.
Veteran Philip Lander, Atlantic Defense’s president, said he was pleased to be part of the project. Lander said he, veteran Rob Haley of Sangerville, who constructed the concrete pad that the trailer rests on in the Dover-Foxcroft location, and veteran Duane Lander of Greenville, who constructed the pad on the Charles A. Dean Memorial Hospital campus in Greenville, were inspired and mentored by their uncle, the late Manley Haley, a World War II veteran.
“This medical van and its staff is the least we [the country] can do to help veterans from that area obtain decent health care,” Lander wrote in an e-mail last week.
Decent health care is all Philip Pearl, 61, of Atkinson, wants and expects. The Army veteran, who served in the Vietnam era, said the clinic is a “good convenience” for him. Before, Pearl said, he would have to drive to Bangor to get laboratory work done and then return to Bangor on another day to see the doctor. At the mobile health care clinic, he can get his lab work done by Michel Bryant, a medical support assistant; see Thomas Money, a licensed clinical social worker; get his vitals taken by nurse Joanne Bradshaw; and see Sherryl Kempton, a nurse practitioner, all in one stop.
The mobile unit has an electronic medical records system connected by satellite with the VA Medical Center at Togus, so no matter where a veteran is in the country, the records are available, according to Doherty. That’s especially beneficial for residents who winter in Florida and summer in Maine, he said.
In addition, Doherty said the mobile unit has a video system by which veterans can talk to a psychiatrist for medication purposes, and it also has a wheelchair lift for those unable to climb the stairs.
Doherty said the mobile unit is expected to serve about 800 veterans in the four locations.
“We’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback from the veterans up in that area,” the VA spokesman said.
Air Force veteran Allan Snyder, of Dover-Foxcroft, added to that feedback Wednesday. “It’s going to make it a lot easier travel for local people,” he said. Snyder said he appreciated the new addition.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the MMU will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance Service at 241 Main St., Bingham. Veterans and the general public are welcome to attend.
For the mobile health clinic’s schedule, visit www.togus.va.gov or call the clinic’s toll-fee number, 866-961-9263.