LEWISTON — Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, has joined a growing list of local veterans searching for answers from the Veterans Administration regarding its soon-to-open local clinic.
The congressman has sent a letter to the head of the VA in New England, Dr. Michael F. Mayo-Smith, asking for an explanation why some services — particularly hearing and vision care — have been erased from the Lewiston clinic's plans.
"Local veterans who will be served by the Lewiston community-based outreach clinic have expressed concerns with the reduced services, and I share their frustrations," Michaud wrote in the letter, dated April 19. "The lack of official information about the decision process has deepened the confusion, and I hope your answers to these questions will clarify the situation."
His letter asked why the plans for the clinic weren't decided before the public groundbreaking last April, when "a commitment to specialty service" was made. He also wanted to know if some offerings might be made on a part-time basis.
On Friday, the letter hadn't arrived, VA spokeswoman Kathleen Cosgrove Makela said. A copy of Michaud's letter was forwarded to Makela from the Sun Journal.
"We will be happy to respond to the congressman once we receive the letter," she said. "Access is a top priority for the secretary and the entire Department of Veterans Affairs, and we are very pleased that the new Lewiston-Auburn clinic will bring services closer to the veterans who need them."
On Tuesday, Ryan Lilly, Togus's associate medical director, said that hearing and vision services will instead be offered in Bangor's VA clinic, where they can reach more people who must drive even further than veterans in Lewiston-Auburn. It will be the closest VA center for those services for people in both Calais and Caribou.
Veterans have worked for about seven years to bring the clinic to Lewiston.
The Department of Veterans Affairs originally intended the facility to be built in the Brunswick area, but veterans lobbied the VA and Maine's congressional delegation to bring it to the Twin Cities, instead. They argued that more veterans would be helped by placing the clinic in Lewiston. Michaud picked up the argument and lobbied the VA.
In February 2010, the VA committed $20 million for a long-term lease on the specially built clinic. Construction began last fall.
The clinic is located at 15 Challenger Drive, just off Alfred Plourde Parkway and a short distance from exit 80 of the Maine Turnpike. The property is owned by Maine Veterans Homes, which plans to build an adult day care center beside the clinic.
The new 29,000-square-foot clinic in Lewiston won't be seeing large numbers of patients for about another two months, Lilly said.
"Teamlets" of health care workers — consisting of a physician, a nurse, a clerk and a health technician — are getting ready for the move to Lewiston, he said. But preparations need to be made for the patients they are leaving and the ones they are taking on. Appointments need to be made and the infrastructure in Lewiston needs to be solid.
Jerry DeWitt, one of the veterans who worked to bring the clinic to Lewiston, said Friday he was pleased by Michaud's action, particularly in response to the reduction in services.
"They were trying to slip it by us without telling anybody," DeWitt said of the VA.