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Advisory committee gets latest news on North Country Veterans’ Clinic

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MASSENA - Members of an advisory committee that meets regularly to share the latest news and concerns about veteran’s care at Massena Memorial Hospital say things are going very well right now.

“I only have positive news to share,” Mark. P. Brouillette, MMH senior director of ancillary and support services told members of the North Country Veterans’ Clinic Advisory Committee Tuesday.

Among the latest pieces of information Mr. Brouillette shared was that the clinic had hired additional primary care providers, putting them at 100 percent staffing with three full-time primary care providers and four additional part-time providers. Mental health is also fully staffed, he said.

“We’re seeing veterans in a timely manner,” he said. “We’re anticipating in the next couple of months to ramp our volume up to about 1,000 visits for primary care and behavioral health.”

Some of those veterans may eventually come from Malone. The Malone Veterans Affairs Community-based Outpatient Clinic was originally scheduled to close on Aug. 31, but was granted an extension until the end of February after U.S. Rep. William L. Owens intervened with the Veterans Administration. Now it has received another one-month extension, pushing the closing date back to March 31.

“That’s probably good news. Veterans were hoping they would get more,” Mr. Brouillette said.

If the clinic closes, local veterans will have to travel to Massena, Saranac Lake or Plattsburgh to receive treatment. All medical records will be transferred to one of the three closest clinics, depending on what a veteran prefers.

The closure is all about numbers, according to Richard G. Kazel, medical/surgical VA care line manager at the Syracuse VA Medical Center.

“I talked to the director of the VA Medical Center. It comes down to numbers. I never had access to the documents that were used for deactivation,” he said.

“The long and short of it is they have not gotten permission to deactivate from Washington. The only person who can give permission is the secretary of the VA,” Mr. Kazel said, noting there had been no meetings thus far to discuss the closure.

“That’s why they got an extension. They have no authority to do anything but keep it running.”

The problem right now, he said, is that the provider now operates out of Saranac Lake. That means the only service available in Malone is Telehealth, with veterans being seen by a provider via computer hook-up.

“If they go, they’re not seen by a provider in the room. They’re seen by a Telehealth provider,” Mr. Kazel said.

He said his primary concern about the closing is ensuring that no veteran drops out of the system because of the need to travel elsewhere.

“It’s important that they don’t give up,” he said.

Telehealth is also provided at the North Country Veterans’ Clinic in Massena, and that’s been a big boost, according to Mr. Brouillette. It allows veterans to be seen in Massena by a doctor at the VA Medical Center in Syracuse without leaving Massena, saving them at least a six-hour round trip.

“It helps veterans receive more of their care here at Massena,” he said, noting they’re now in the process of clearing up a waiting list of those who wanted to use the service. “We’re caught up on our backlog. We’re now ready to accept more from St. Lawrence and Franklin counties.”

Mr. Kazel said he had heard good comments about the service, and he noted a teleretinal capability is also available for eye screenings for diabetics.

“It’s very important for Type 2 diabetics to get an annual exam. This is opportunity to get a reading without having to travel. They can do the eye testing right here. That’s a big plus,” he said.

Ronald A. Faucher, a member of the committee, said he tries to stress to veterans that there’s no need to go to Syracuse in some cases when they can talk with a provider via the Telehealth service in Massena.

“It’s our future,” Mr. Kazel said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Brouillette also discussed a partnership between veterans and Hospice and Palliative Care of St. Lawrence Valley, an effort called the Hospice-Veteran Partnership of NY-North Country.

The overall mission is “to establish an enduring network of hospice and VA professionals, volunteers and other interested organizations working together to provide quality services through the end of life for al of our area’s veterans.”

For 2014, board members have set two goals - recruitment and education. They hope to expand agencies and veterans who are participating in the partnership, to bring additional experience and ideas on how the program should expand and develop to best meet the needs of local veterans. They also want to continue informing the community about the program, including presentations to various groups.

“They’re looking at teaming up and working with veterans,” Mr. Brouillette said.

Hospice is also taking part in a “We Honor Veterans” program, he noted.

We Honor Veterans is a national hospice provider awareness campaign conducted by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The local hospice staff recently assembled a committee that includes representatives from several area veterans’ organizations, hospitals and nursing homes to discuss the best ways to educate veterans on available benefits, particularly those related to hospice care. They also discussed ways to honor veterans through pinning ceremonies while they are enrolled in hospice care.

“Our staff understand the unique needs of veterans and are prepared to meet the specific challenges that veterans and their families may face at the end of life. We have embraced our mission to serve America’s veterans. It’s our way of saying thank you for the sacrifices they have made in serving us,” Hospice officials said in a release announcing the partnership.

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