SARANAC LAKE - Local veterans have declared victory in their three-year battle to get a U.S. Veterans Administration outpatient medical clinic located in the area.
A long-awaited ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new facility, located on Depot Street, was held Thursday.
"I never thought it would happen," said Alton Beideck, 90, a member of the Saranac Lake Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3357 and a World War II veteran. "I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the veterans in this area."
The ribbon is cut to open the new Veterans Administration outpatient medical clinic on Depot Street in Saranac Lake Thursday. From left: Tim Pierce of the state Division of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau, VFW Post 3357 adjutant Frank Karl, Paul Smith’s College President John Mills, Stratton VA Medical Center Director Linda Weiss and Peter Potter, Stratton VA Public Affairs.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Frustrated with having to travel long distances to get the care they're entitled to, due to their military service, local veterans pushed for years to get the VA to locate a clinic in the Tri-Lakes area. At that time, the nearest clinics were in Elizabethtown and Plattsburgh.
Their effort was rewarded in May 2010, when VA officials came to Saranac Lake to announce plans to locate an outpatient clinic in a 2,600-square-foot addition to the Branch and Callanan building across from the Union Depot train station. Construction began in October 2010. The clinic welcomed its first patients last month.
VA medical staff - including a physician, nurses and clerical staff - will split their time between the Saranac Lake clinic and a sister site in Westport. Each site will be open either two or three days a week. The sites will provide veterans with primary care and routine prescriptions. Both will also be linked to the VA's telehealth program, which allows local patients to consult with physicians or medical specialists via videoconference or telephone.
"It's really great because now I don't have to drive to Plattsburgh, I don't have to drive to Elizabethtown - they can diagnose me here," said Eric Talbot, commander of the Saranac Lake American Legion Post 447. "If I need something major, I'd still have to go to (the Stratton VA Medical Center in) Albany, but for most things it will be easier to come right here since I live here in town."
Local veterans pointed to Frank Karl, an Onchiota resident who is adjutant of the Saranac Lake VFW Post, as the man who led the charge to get the VA clinic here.
"This is awesome," Karl said. "I'm so thankful. It's been long-needed. It's going to keep a lot of our people from having to travel, but also it's going to encourage some people who didn't sign up for VA care in the past to come forward and do it now."
That's apparently happening already. Linda Weiss, director of the Stratton VA, which oversees the Saranac Lake clinic, said roughly 30 percent of the patients served at the local clinic so far are new enrollees to VA health care system.
"I expect that number will grow," she said. "In the larger Saranac Lake area there are some 4,500 veterans. Transportation and the difficulties of driving in the Adirondacks in the dead of winter made getting to the other areas a stretch. This is a real community hub, and here we are."
The VA is leasing space in the Depot Street building, which was built and is owned by HES Ventures. Karl and other area veterans thanked Dan Reilly of HES Ventures for his persistence in working with the VA to get the clinic up and running. U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, also helped make the project a reality, Karl said.
"It's very important that these kinds of services be provided," Owens told the crowd of veterans, their families and local residents who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "I think everybody in the audience has had an experience where they have a friend, a neighbor, a loved one who needed the services of the VA, and understand how important that is."
Thursday's ceremony also featured speeches from Weiss, Karl, village Mayor Clyde Rabideau, Paul Smith's College President John Mills and Tim Pierce of the state Division of Veterans Affairs. After the ribbon was cut, the public was invited in to tour the new facility.
Now that the clinic is operating, it will take veterans using it to keep it running.
"As with anything, you use it or lose it," Weiss said. "We're here to serve veterans. We want veterans to come."
Karl said he'd like to show there's a need for the clinic to be staffed more than just a couple of days a week.
"The reality of it is if enough people sign up, as the enrollment increases, the days it's covered will be increased," he said. "We can go up to a full week if we get enough of them. That's what we're striving for now."