A new central Kenai Peninsula clinic slated to open in September could spare hundreds of veterans the drive to Department of Veterans Affairs facilities in Anchorage.
"We're all quite excited about it," said Vietnam veteran Al Hicks, 54, local commander and department adjutant for the Disabled American Veterans, first vice officer for American Legion Post 20 and a leader in the grass-roots campaign that brought the clinic to the peninsula. "The biggest thing about it is, we've been focused on this since July 2000, and by September 2001 it's going to open."
For government, that's moving fast, he said.
World War II veteran Glenn Schrader, 82, of Kenai, said there is van service Tuesdays and Thursdays to the VA hospital in Anchorage.
"But that leaves Carrs in Kenai about 7 in the morning, and many times, its 6 or 7 at night before they get back -- all for a simple blood draw or to get a prescription or a minor examination," he said.
The drive is dangerous, particularly in winter, he said, and the van has crashed several times.
"There's many eligible veterans that won't even consider going on that van," he said. "They'd rather stay home and sweat it out."
Mike Bell, community affairs director for the VA in Anchorage, said he hopes to sign a lease any day for a medical office in Kenai, but he could not divulge the location until the lease is signed.
He said he expects the new VA clinic to serve a clientele of 800 patients during its first year, 1,000 during its second year and 1,100 during its third, though the numbers three years out are difficult to predict. The clinic's staff will include an internal medicine physician, two registered nurses and a medical clerk.
Its tentative hours will be Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The clinic generally will see patients only with scheduled appointments, Bell said, since walk-in traffic would be too much for a single physician. The VA's first priority will be the 565 central peninsula veterans who now use VA health facilities in Anchorage.
"We want to improve their lives first," Bell said. "I have a list of who has a central peninsula address. I'll overlay that on the available appointments."
Schrader said 5,000 to 6,000 veterans live on the central peninsula.
Bell said the new clinic may entice more to seek VA services.
"We believe there is a pent-up demand, and there are those that seek it in Anchorage and more that would come if it were available locally," he said.
He said the clinic sprang from health-care concerns veterans raised during a meeting with VA officials at the Kenai Armory last July.
To date, the VA has required peninsula veterans to travel to Anchorage for health services, allowing waivers only rarely, such as for veterans whose poor health precludes travel.
Hicks said the Disabled American Veterans, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars strongly supported opening a central peninsula clinic. Local veterans lobbied Alaska's congressional delegation. Hicks traveled to Washing-ton, D.C., and met with Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs.
"Our politicking worked pretty well," he said.
Bell said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, inserted language into an appropriations bill directing the VA to open a clinic on the peninsula, preferably within the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
"We'd already been working on it," Bell said. "This gives us an additional impetus."
Congress made no specific appropriation for the clinic.
"Most of the money comes from reprogramming our budget," Bell said. "We spend money now on doctors here. One doctor retired. Rather than hire in Anchorage, we hired on the Kenai Peninsula."
The VA began advertising in February for a turn-key medical office in Soldotna or Kenai. Bell said Kenai was a possibility only because the hospital is opening a Kenai clinic this summer that will offer laboratory and X-ray services.
Running the VA clinic will cost $687,000 per year, he said. That includes rent, salaries, janitorial service, utility bills and $80,000 to $100,000 per year to buy services such as radiology and laboratory tests from Central Peninsula General Hospital. Not all of that money is new to the peninsula, since the VA already pays for emergency room visits and emergency hospitalization.
There are no plans to credential the VA physician with Central Peninsula General Hospital, Bell said, and the VA physician will not admit patients to the hospital.
Instead, the VA will approach local doctors to serve as admitting physicians and hospital care providers.
Bell said he is sensitive to the fact that local doctors will lose office visits to the VA clinic.
"Our patients there have some established doctor in the community," he said. "If they transfer their primary health care to our doctor, there may be resistance from some doctors to picking up acute care."
He said he plans to discuss such concerns with an independent-practice association formed by area doctors. He hopes to negotiate agreements with the hospital on how emergency services and in-patient care will be handled.
The new VA physician is expected to arrive in Alaska about July 1 and will spend several weeks in Anchorage learning VA computers and protocols. He will come to Kenai in August to set up procedures for his practice here, install office equipment and prepare the office. Bell said he hopes the clinic can open the week of Sept. 19.
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