SARANAC LAKE - After nearly a year without a full-time physician on staff, the Veterans Administration outpatient health clinic on Depot Street has a new doctor.
It's also expanded its hours.
The VA has hired Dr. Thomas Socash, who has more than 20 years of private practice experience in the Old Forge area, to serve as the primary care physician for both the Westport and Saranac Lake clinics. Linda Weiss, director of the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, which oversees the region's clinics, announced the news in a letter sent last week to local veterans.
Weiss also said the two clinics will now each be open five days a week, Monday through Friday. Previously, they had operated on alternating split schedules, with one clinic open two days a week and the other open the remaining three days.
However, the expanded schedule doesn't mean each site will have its own doctor five days a week. Stratton VA spokesman Peter Potter told the Enterprise Friday that the clinics' hours are being expanded through the enhanced use of telemedicine programs that allow patients to consult with VA physicians and medical staff in Albany via secure video conferencing.
"Whether it's a doctor here or a doctor there, it's open," Potter said. "It will be open hours five days a week, and based on patient need, there will be regular scheduling of doctor's appointments, access to primary care and the use of telehealth."
Weiss praised the telemedicine technology but added, "It is important to note that telemedicine will not replace face-to-face appointment accessibility. It only serves to enhance provider availability while utilizing staff in the most effective, efficient and beneficial way possible."
The local clinics had been without a full-time doctor since late November 2011, when the physician hired by the VA, Dr. David Cohn, left to take care of an ailing family member in Florida. In the months that followed, one of the nurses at the Saranac Lake clinic retired while another resigned.
The lack of staffing sparked concern and frustration among some of the local veterans who fought for three years to get the VA to locate a clinic here. There were rumors that the Depot Street clinic, which opened in August 2011, was going to close.
Potter said the clinics have been operating with staff from Albany and a locum tenens, or temporary doctor, while the search for a full-time physician took place.
"We had a couple candidates we were looking at, and this one happens to be from the Old Forge area," he said. "He's got roots in the area, is familiar with the North Country and is a fine person to fill the position. The process has been a little long for contracting, but the benefit of that is you make sure you get the right person."
Potter said other vacancies at the clinics have also been filled. Each site will have a medical support assistant, a registered nurse and two licensed practical nurses.
"Please join us in welcoming Dr. Socash to our staff as we look forward to continuing to serve your needs, and the needs of veterans of the North Country through services provided five days a week and the use of telehealth," Weiss said in her letter.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.