Veterans express anger, concern about closing Bingham VA clinic

Representatives of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud along with Veterans Affairs Medical Director Brian Stiller field questions from veterans about the closing of Bingham's mobile medical clinic during a meeting at the American Legion Stanley Beane Post in Bingham on Wednesday evening.
Alex Barber | BDN
Representatives of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud along with Veterans Affairs Medical Director Brian Stiller field questions from veterans about the closing of Bingham's mobile medical clinic during a meeting at the American Legion Stanley Beane Post in Bingham on Wednesday evening.
Posted Sept. 07, 2011, at 11:05 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 08, 2011, at 12:02 a.m.

BINGHAM, Maine — Nearly 150 veterans and residents gathered at the American Legion Stanley Beane Post on Wednesday evening — many angry and others concerned — to voice their opposition to the closing of the Veterans Affairs medical trailer in town.

The mobile health trailer will be closing down within weeks, said VA medical director Brian Stiller. It’s at the end of its three-year pilot program.

“I’m not done [with helping the veterans of the area],” said Stiller. “This isn’t over, but I’m not sure the mobile medical unit is the approach to get where we need to be.”

Veterans expressed their displeasure in a question-and-answer session involving Stiller and representatives for Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Rep. Mike Michaud.

“We get the finest care in the world here in Bingham,” said Ross Fortier of Guilford. “We can’t give up this last vestige of what we have. I’m quite adamant about that.

“Damn it, we can’t keep taking away! We live here. And we’re in the woods, granted, and it’s a long ways to anywhere, but goddamn it we need something,” added Fortier, who left the two-hour meeting early in disgust.

Once Bingham’s medical trailer closes down, the only options for veterans in the area will be to travel Bangor or Togus in Augusta.

That’s too far to travel, some said.

“They can’t afford to drive to Togus. A lot of you people [politicians] don’t realize that they can’t,” said Gary Farnham of Solon, who said he served four years in the Marines.

Stiller said he’s working hard to find a better solution to get health care to veterans in the area, but said his biggest obstacle has been numbers. The clinic had a high of 558 different patients in 2010, he said, but 850 is the number needed to be sustainable. The area is too sparsely populated to reach that number, he said.

Others argued that only having a three-year program isn’t enough time to gather the proper data.

“You need more than two years,” said Carolsue Hill, practice manager for Bingham Health Care Center. “People in rural Maine don’t like change. You can’t do it in two years. You cannot do it in five years. You need at least 15 years.”

“We hear you loud and clear,” said Collins’ representative Bobby Reynolds.

Farnham pointed to limiting government waste as a way to keep the program going.

“The thing that I really disagree with is that we’re worried about a petty amount of money,” he said.

Money is something not many veterans in the area have.

“I’m a diabetic, work 40 hours a week and I make minimum wage,” said Robert Morrill, 62, of Bingham. “I expect the VA to take care of me because that’s what they promised.”

“I think a simple way we can look at this is that you can turn around and read the sign behind you guys. It says ‘A grateful nation remembers.’ I think you forgot that,” said Farnham.

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