The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is hoping to expand a clinic in Portland that allows southern Maine veterans to receive basic medical and mental health care locally rather than traveling to the Togus VA Medical Center near Augusta.

The VA has operated a Community-Based Outpatient Care facility on Fore Street in Portland since 2011, as well as a second outpatient clinic in Saco. Under a proposal in President Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget, the VA is requesting congressional authorization to spend $6.8 million to lease about 56,600 square feet at an unspecified location in Portland. The Saco clinic would close and be consolidated into the larger Portland facility, which would offer more services than it does now.

“The proposed lease would enhance veteran health care options by creating a more efficient, patient-centered approach to care and by adding multiple specialty care services closer to the veteran population,” the VA proposal states. “With this new lease, sufficient space will be available to provide the necessary specialty care capacity to help ensure veterans have timely access to high-quality care.”

The expansion has not yet been funded and would require authorization by Congress, a potentially lengthy process. The proposal was applauded by veterans groups and at least one member of the state’s congressional delegation.

“I’m very enthusiastic about the prospect of a significant expansion of VA services in Portland,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, Maine’s 1st District congresswoman, said in a written statement. “There are a lot of procedures and services that are in high demand that could be provided in Portland, and it would be great if we could save veterans in southern Maine the drive to Togus. We’ve got a long way to go before we can break ground on an expansion, but it’s a proposal I strongly support.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, said they are soliciting feedback on the proposal.

“Ensuring that Maine’s veterans have access to the highest-quality care is one of our top priorities, and we’re pursuing the input of local veterans and interested stakeholders to understand their perspective about the proposal,” King and Collins said in a joint statement. “We look forward to continuing those discussions and remain committed to working to improve care for veterans across our state.”

Jim Doherty, spokesman for the VA Maine Healthcare System, declined to comment on the proposal because it involves pending legislation. The proposal is expected to be discussed during a meeting Tuesday with VA officials at the Post 17 American Legion in Portland.

The state commander of the American Legion in Maine, Ronald Rainfrette, welcomed the prospect of an expanded facility in the Portland area. Maine has a large population of aging veterans, and making the trip to either the VA Togus hospital in Chelsea or other VA facilities can be a logistical and financial challenge for some veterans, he said.

“I think it’s a great idea because traveling for all of our veterans in such a large state is difficult,” Rainfrette said. “So every time we can put a clinic in different towns, I’m all for it.”

The VA operates community-based outpatient clinics in eight communities – including Portland, Bangor and Caribou – plus smaller outpatient operations in four communities. The Portland clinic has 45 full- and part-time employees who provide care to an estimated 3,850 veterans annually, according to data provided by Doherty.

Those services include primary care and mental health care, lab work, telemedicine and home-based care for veterans unable to travel to the clinic. Specialists in such fields as cardiology, endocrinology and rheumatology also visit the clinic one or two days a week for appointments, and the clinic serves as a teaching facility for medical students in their residency stage at Tufts University near Boston and Maine Medical Center in Portland.

The potential expansion in Portland comes at a time when the VA is seeking to help veterans in rural states, such as Maine, by creating more satellite or outpatient facilities. At the same time, the department is under intense pressure from veterans organizations and members of Congress to reduce the waiting time for veterans to receive care and address a backlog of disability claims.

Congress also is scrutinizing cost overruns at new VA facilities, particularly at a hospital under construction near Denver that has cost roughly $1 billion more than anticipated.

In its proposal, the VA presented a list of potential options to address the increased demand for services in southern Maine, including construction of a new, even larger facility. But the VA said leasing space would be more cost-effective and provide more flexibility to respond to changing demands in the future.

 

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