Shutdown spares VA clinics — for now

The recent federal government shutdown won’t close Veterans Affairs health clinics or cancel veterans’ appointments, but there could be a wrinkle if staff are furloughed at a VA hub in New York City.

Bonnie Stewart, deputy director of the Franklin County Veterans Services Agency, told the Franklin County Board of Legislators that the VA clinics in Saranac Lake and Malone were safe this week, but she didn’t know what next week will bring. She said the VA regional office in New York City might close as early as Monday, which would mean the local clinics wouldn’t have a home base to process their claims.

“We were told last week that they would be shutting the doors and just have someone in the mailroom to date-stamp things, because our comp claims and pension claims are very time sensitive,” Stewart said. “We’re faxing informal claims a lot to that building, and I don’t know how that’s going to work. I don’t think there will be anyone at a fax machine to catch those.”

VA regional spokesman Peter Potter, of the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, was more reassuring.

“Hospital and clinic functions, as of right now – because we never know what they’re going to throw into the mix next – are operating as normal,” Potter said Friday.

Not only are VA doctors and nurses considered “essential” workers; so are others such as cleaning staff, Potter said.

Malone, Saranac Lake clinics

This comes at a time when Stewart is trying to save the clinic in Malone, which the VA plans to close, shifting its doctor and other resources to clinics in Saranac Lake and Westport.

Currently, Potter said, three doctors in Albany do telemedicine to the Saranac Lake and Westport clinics, meeting with patients over high-resolution video screens. One of those three, Dr. Caroline Grosvenor, drives up from Albany to Saranac Lake and/or Westport twice a week. A fourth doctor for those clinics is being credentialed now.

Potter lauded how much health care can be done by telecommunication. Veterans still need to see doctors in person, he said, but not as often, and many skeptical veterans are seeing that.

The Malone outpatient clinic was slated to close Aug. 31, but Stewart said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer pushed to extend that date after she met with him in September.

“Sen. Schumer did indicate that he would try to push for one year for this clinic with proper staffing, to see if we can get the numbers up,” Stewart said.

There are currently more than 4,000 veterans in Franklin County. At its peak, the Malone clinic served 820 of them. It currently serves 699, but Stewart said that number is rising.

“Lately we’ve been registering two to three veterans here a week, and they know it’s closing, but they still want to go here to Malone as long as they can,” Stewart said. “A year ago they opened the clinic in Saranac Lake, which was wonderful for my southern vets. I was so grateful for that, but that did take numbers away. I’m grabbing every opportunity I can to try to save this clinic.”

Stewart said proper staffing means having a doctor and a post-traumatic stress disorder counselor on staff. The Malone clinic has been without a PTSD counselor since January, and its doctor, Nuzhat Syed, is slated to move in February to the Saranac Lake VA clinic.

“Right now our vets have to go to Massena or Plattsburgh, and if they’re going there for PTSD counseling, there’s a good chance they’re going to change their medical care there as well,” Stewart said.

“The numbers have been going down year after year in Malone,” Potter said. He added that another reason to close the Malone clinic is that its building doesn’t have room to expand, hampering the VA’s desire to allow for more patient privacy and medical technological devices.

Also, he said, the North Country is an area where it’s hard to find qualified staff.

“That’s been the experience of private and public hospitals up there,” Potter said. “There’s a very limited pool of resources.”

Stewart noted that Franklin County received more than $17 million from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last year.

“We were one of eight counties in New York state to have an increase in those dollars from 2011,” Stewart said. “Since $9.8 million of that came in the form of compensation and pension money, that’s money going directly into the pockets of our vets and their dependents. Most of it’s being spent right here in Franklin County.”