Veterans living on the Kenai Peninsula soon will not need to make the long and sometimes dangerous drive to Anchorage to seek medical attention from the Veterans Administration clinic.
Sen. Ted Stevens announced Tuesday that a clinic will be opened in the Kenai-Soldotna area later this year.
"Our veterans on the Kenai will no longer have to make the trip to the VA clinic in Anchorage just to see a doctor," Stevens said. "It will soon be much easier for our veterans ... on the Kenai to access medical care."
Mike Bell, the community affairs director for the Alaska VA Healthcare System and Regional Office in Anchorage said his office soon will begin advertising for lease space proposals to house the clinic.
Bell said he is looking for commercial medical office space for a one-doctor primary care practice.
"It could be based in a medical office building or in an appropriate storefront location," he said.
The clinic also would be staffed with at least one nurse and clerical staff.
He said the VA is recruiting an internal medicine physician who will train in Anchorage this summer, before opening the clinic, tentatively, in the third week of September.
"(The doctor) will see patients part time in Anchorage, so he'll be able to work with them and get to know them before he opens the door on the Kenai," Bell said.
The physician would act as the primary caregiver for the veterans, who could then provide referrals if additional care or tests are needed.
"We don't envision a great deal of advanced medial technology in the site, but we will contract that locally or in Anchorage," Bell said.
He said there is already an interview set up with one prospective doctor.
There are currently 789 veterans from the peninsula who travel to Anchorage via van for services, and Al Hicks, commander of Chapter 5 of the Disabled American Veterans in Kenai, has used the service for medical attention in the past. He's been the van driver, as well. He said a local clinic will be a boon to local veterans.
"It will be very helpful to us because a lot of veterans flat out refuse to go to Anchorage for treatment. Some are very disgruntled with the service," he said.
Bell estimated there are 5,000 veterans living on the peninsula. Hicks said it's at least that many.
"Those are the ones we know of," he said.
Hicks said many veterans are distrustful of government and its programs and do not come forward to take advantage of services for veterans.
"I know the inconvenience of traveling to Anchorage has kept some veterans from using the VA for their health care," Bell said. "They say the trip to Anchorage is too burdensome, inconvenient and dangerous."
"A lot of veterans are too weary to drive to Anchorage for medical care," he said.
The geographic boundaries where the clinic can be built basically encompass the Kenai and Soldotna city limits and some of the areas in between.
"Both Kenai and Soldotna have their pluses," Bell said. "Kenai is closer to the airport, in case we have to ship somebody to Anchorage for treatment. And Soldotna is close to the hospital, so we can take advantage of it for ancillary services."
He said a selection will be made based on the suitability of the space leased, with proximity to other services factored in.
Hicks said some veterans believe Soldotna is the best choice in case of emergency, since Central Peninsula General Hospital is right there, but noted either city would be appropriate for the clinic.
"We'll be right near the hub of the wheel in the Kenai-Soldotna area," he said.
The clinic space the VA is looking for, between 3,500 and 5,500 square feet, will be big enough to handle more than the four initial employees.
"It's easier to add staff than to move walls out," Bell said.
The annual budget of the facility is projected at $687,000, Bell said.
Hicks described the new clinic as "a great opening of the door."
"As we know, the government feeds the squeaky wheel, and once people use the local clinic, it could expand greatly," he said. "This is just the beginning."
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