published Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

New East Tennessee veterans clinics improve access to health care

The two new veterans outpatient clinics in Athens and Harriman in East Tennessee, where ribbons were cut in April, answer longtime needs in the region, officials say.

Veterans' health care has been drawing fire in recent months, with a growing list of facilities nationwide now under investigation amid allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals.

Jessica Schiefer, a spokeswoman for the Veterans Administration office in Nashville, said the two clinics demonstrate efforts to providing adequate services.

"It's all in an effort to improve access, and that's what all of this is about -- to make sure veterans have access to the care they deserve," she said.

Each clinic is staffed with a patient-aligned care team -- a provider, medical assistant, registered nurse and licensed practical nurse -- "so that veterans can come in and see the same doctor, the same nurse, the same clinician," Schiefer said.

Veterans often are frustrated with repeatedly explaining their maladies to someone new every time they visit, she noted.

Both clinics also are equipped to provide services to female veterans, an increasing population, she said.

The Athens Outreach Clinic now is open four days a week, but another care team is likely to be added there, she said.

Facilities like the one in Athens and the Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Roane and Maury counties "provide pretty much 99 percent of [veterans'] basic primary care and mental health needs right in their backyard," she said. The new Roane County facility replaces a clinic in Rockwood that was closed.

Schiefer said officials at the Athens clinic report that many veterans attending McMinn's clinic are Vietnam and Korean war veterans who needed a facility closer to home. Until now, the nearest clinics were in Chattanooga and Knoxville.

Jason Means, the clinic's care team clerk and a U.S. Army veteran who served six years in Europe and six years in the U.S., described the patients seen at the clinic as "a melting pot of everybody."

The new facility already is starting to grow its staff.

"With one doctor, we're seeing about eight [patients] a day. Most of them are hour-long appointments," Means said of the clinic that opened March 31.

"They're in the process of hiring another team -- a doctor, RN, LPN and another scheduling clerk," he said. "We're happy to be here. I know it's been a longtime coming, and everything's working out pretty well."

McMinn County's veterans "are ecstatic, to put it mildly," county director of veterans affairs Deborah Cox said.

McMinn has a veteran population of more than 5,000, and the clinic there answered a longtime need and is "getting them in as quick as possible," Cox said. The drive time made it harder for the veterans to get care, but now "it's a whole lot easier all the way around."

Tom Green, Cox's predecessor, spearheaded the effort to locate a clinic in Athens, she said.

"It "was a group effort from not only this office, but the mayor's office and the congressman's (U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's) office, local business people and, of course, the veterans. Veterans organizations were instrumental as well," Cox said.

Fleischmann issued a statement celebrating the clinics' opening.

"I helplessly watched my father struggle to find assistance in the over-burdened VA system. The opening of these two clinics demonstrates a commitment to improve veterans' access to quality health care in East Tennessee.

"This is a significant victory for the brave men and women who protected our country and a giant step toward ensuring veterans receive the care they need and so rightly deserve," Fleischmann said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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