SARANAC LAKE - The Veterans Administration outpatient medical clinic on Depot Street now has no doctor and no nurses, but it isn't closing.
The VA clinic, which opened its doors in August, has been without a doctor since late November, when the physician hired by the VA to staff it and a sister facility in Westport, Dr. David Cohn, left to take care of an ailing family member in Florida.
Since then, one of the two nurses who worked in the clinics has resigned, and the other one - Nancy Mahoney of Bloomingdale - just retired last week.
At the Saranac Lake VA clinic’s opening Aug. 25, U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, center, and VA psychologist Ted Ines get a tour.
(Enterprise file photo — Chris Knight)
The lack of staffing at the Saranac Lake clinic has sparked concern and frustration among the local veterans who fought for three years to get the VA to locate a clinic here.
"It's a major concern," said Frank Karl, an Onchiota resident who, as adjutant of the Saranac Lake Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3357, was a driving force in getting the clinic here. "My phone's ringing all the time with people asking what's going on. Everybody is so frustrated now because they were so elated and happy when we finally got it."
Alton Beideck, a member of the Saranac Lake VFW Post and a World War II veteran, told the Enterprise this morning that he had heard the VA clinic would close due to the staffing problems.
"It's very serious," he said. "There's 4,400 veterans in the area, and God knows what they're going to do now."
But the Enterprise has since learned that the clinic won't close its doors.
"It's not closing, and there will be staff there from Albany who will be covering," said Mahoney, whose last day of work at the clinics was Friday. "They may redo hours, but as far as I know, it's going to be the same."
Peter Potter, spokesman for the Stratton VA in Albany, which oversees the Saranac Lake and Westport clinics, confirmed that the two facilities will remain open despite the staffing issues.
"Retirements and folks deciding they want to do something else is something out of our control," Potter said. "However, we still are dedicated to keep that clinic open, as we are with the Westport clinic. Whatever rumblings are out there, that is the absolute opposite end of it."
Potter said the VA is close to hiring a physician and is also seeking new nurses for the two clinics. In the meantime, other VA nurses will come up from Albany to run the facilities, he said. Potter said both sites also have telemedicine programs that allow patients to consult with VA physicians and medical staff in Albany.
"Even when there's issues like this that blindside you, it's very easy to remedy the situation at least on a temporary basis," Potter said.
But Karl said the staffing issues could come up again because of the way the Saranac Lake and Westport clinics are being operated.
"What is happening to the staff there is they work two days (in Saranac Lake), and the rest of the time they have to go over to Westport," Karl said. "That traveling has just been a bear, and they can't hold onto staff because of that. They have telemedicine, but that requires a nurse to do it and a witness when it's going on."
Karl said local veterans are caught in a Catch-22.
"If we get enough veterans to sign up (for VA care), the clinic would be open all week and they could have their own staff," he said. "But having the staffing problem is discouraging people from signing up, so there isn't enough demand for full-time staffing."
Karl said he informed U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, an Air Force veteran, to inform him of the situation. He also said he'd like to see VA officials sit down with representatives of Adirondack Health "to see if they can't come up with some sort of a contract to make sure there's no lapses in staffing or contract with them for staffing."
Potter said the VA may be able to provide nursing staff at the Saranac Lake clinic five days a week.
"We're kind of looking at that right now," he said. "If anything, we're looking at providing additional service, as opposed to cutting back."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.