Wenatchee VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic gets about 1,150 patient visits each month and serves about 2,500 veterans. The clinic is overseen by the Spokane VA Medical Center.
There are an estimated 11,000 veterans residing in Douglas and Chelan counties eligible for health care through the Wenatchee clinic.
In addition, there are about 1,500 veterans residing in Grant and Okanagan counties who may be eligible for services at the Wenatchee clinic or the two VA-contracted Rural Health Clinics located in Tonasket and Republic. Tonasket averages 160-180 veteran visits each month. Republic about 30-40.
The Spokane VA Center also oversees rural health clinics in Colville, Sandpoint, Idaho and Libby, Mont.
The Wenatchee Clinic offers a variety of outpatient services, including primary care and mental health, as well as support services for homeless veterans.
In Fiscal Year 2012, the following was provided:
Audiology (hearing aid fittings/repairs: ) 125 veterans each month
Eye Clinic: 93 veterans each month
Primary Care: 250 veterans each month
Psychiatry/Behavioral Health Services: 75 veterans each month
Social work: 42 veterans each month
Patient satisfaction scores compiled by the Wenatchee VA Clinic from more than 215 veterans receiving services there were excellent, averaging 4.6 out of a possible 5 points.
Source: Spokane VA Medical Center
Most veterans honorably discharged from full time military service are eligible for medical benefits.
Orientation classes for new patients are held most Thursday mornings at the Elwood “Bud” Link VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic, 2530 Chester Kimm Rd., Wenatchee.
Call (509) 663-7615 to make an appointment or for more information.
— Rick Steigmeyer, World staff
WENATCHEE — Patient numbers continue to grow but are still short of what was expected when the Elwood “Bud” Link Wenatchee VA Clinic opened five years ago.
Numbers are less than half the 6,000 patients expected by now. But new contract clinics in outlying areas and new services have boosted numbers considerably in the past year and, officials say, the system is healthy and still growing.
Perhaps more importantly, the clinic’s clients and officials say veteran health care in the region has vastly improved in the region since the Wenatchee clinic opened.
The clinic, a satellite outpatient clinic of the Spokane VA Medical Center located at 2530 Chester Kimm Road in Olds Station, has about 2,500 patients, mostly veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Officials hope to attract a younger group of veterans from more recent service in the future.
To do so, they’ve added a psychiatrist, an audiologist, an optometrist and other staff and technology in the past year that will keep patients from having to travel to Spokane or Seattle for some specialized treatments. More women’s health care is now offered as well.
The clinic has two new telemedicine carts that allow doctors at the Spokane VA Center or elsewhere to fully participate in medical procedures here in Wenatchee.
“Doctors in Spokane can listen to a heart or lungs, look in ears and throat with as much clarity as if they were in the same room,” Riddle said. “This is really the trend of future medicine.” Staff are still learning how to use the equipment, but Riddle said the potential is limitless in terms of veterans being able to access specialized care at a clinic close to their homes.
“We added those things because veterans asked for them,” he said. Right now, directors say the clinic is working at capacity for the number of staff it has, although there’s room for more medical professionals and services if warranted by an increase in patients.
“We want to help as many veterans as need help,” said Dr. Rob Riddle, chief of ambulatory services for the Spokane VA Medical Center and its five outpatient clinics in Washington, Idaho and Montana. “We have the room to help more here. That’s the biggest problem at most clinics.”
Norm Rose likes being able to stay closer to home to get treatment.
“It’s great that they now have hearing and visual help. I used to have to go to Spokane for that,” said Rose, 80, of Leavenworth. Rose served in the Air Force from 1952 to 1960. He was at the clinic to have his eyes checked in January. His eyes were damaged, he said, while stationed near the North Pole in 1953.
An audiologist at the clinic has also been a popular addition. Many veterans suffer from hearing loss from being around gunfire and explosives.
“This helps so many more veterans who weren’t helped before,” Linda Ingraham, said about the clinic. A member of Cashmere American Legion Post 64 Auxiliary, she and her husband Darrell worked with other local veteran groups to bring the clinic to Wenatchee. “It’s so much more convenient.”
Riddle said there are many more veterans yet to help. Younger veterans of more recent wars are often covered through jobs that offer insurance for their whole family and don’t turn to VA help until later in life, he said. Private insurance doesn’t always cover mental health care, however. Riddle said between 40 and 50 percent of returning veterans file disability claims, mostly related to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other behavior problems. The clinic has a psychiatrist, a social worker and homeless coordinator who can treat those problems.
“Veterans are tough people to help,” said Duane Broaddus, a founder of the Wenatchee group Vets Serving Vets. “You can’t please every veteran because of our differences, ailments and mental issues. But this clinic tries really hard. They’re doing a great job. But can it be done better? Absolutely.”
The clinic has added many new services in the past year and has started working more closely with the American Legion, VFW and nonprofit veteran groups, Vets Serving Vets among them, said Ron Bruno, another founding member of the group.
“It’s far better than it used to be. It has totally turned around in the past 18 months,” said Bruno, explaining that the clinic is trying harder to respond to the needs of local veterans. Bruno said he has insurance that allows him to get help elsewhere, but prefers going to the VA clinic because staff there understand PTSD and other mental and physical problems veterans are likely to have.
When the new 13,000-square-foot building first opened in 2007, officials estimated it would see about 2,500 patients the first year and up to 6,000 patients by the third year of operation. Surveys at that time estimated there were about 26,000 veterans living in the six-county region — Chelan, Douglas, Okanogan, Grant, Ferry and Kittitas — the clinic would serve.
Patient numbers are lower than expected in Wenatchee, in part, Riddle said, because many veterans are now being helped elsewhere. The Wenatchee clinic was created so veterans wouldn’t have to travel to Spokane or Seattle for primary care. To make things even more convenient, the medical center has recently added additional contract clinics in hospitals in Tonasket, Republic and Colville. Other small clinics have also been contracted in Sand Point, Idaho and Libby, Mont. Other clinics may be added in Ellensburg and Moses Lake in the future.
Started little more than a year ago, the five new clinics logged more than 7,600 visits with 2,800 patients between Oct. 1, 2011 and Sept. 30, 2012, said Kim Waller, Spokane VA rural health coordinator. Tonasket had more than 1,700 visits from 585 different patients.
The number of patients going to the satellite clinics, added to the 2,500 regular patients seen at the Wenatchee clinic, total about 5,300, close to the projected number of patients.
“There are a lot of veterans in that area so I project the numbers at the Tonasket clinic will continue to grow,” Waller said.
“We found that it was still difficult for our clients to drive from Tonasket and farther, so we added more clinics,” Riddle said. The VA Center contracts with small general hospitals in each of those areas to provide services to veterans. Each of the clinics have new telemedicine carts that connect them with specialists and other health providers at the main medical center in Spokane.
The Wenatchee clinic opened only after years of lobbying by its namesake, Bud Link, an outspoken World War II Navy veteran. Link and other members of Cashmere VFW Post 10445 and American Legion Post 64 badgered VA officials and legislators to open a clinic in the area to serve aging veterans who could no longer make the long drive to hospitals in Spokane or Seattle for every little problem. Sen. Patty Murray listened to their pleas and found funding for the clinic, which opened Aug. 22, 2007, four years after Link’s death.
“I worked for years with local veterans like Bud Link to build this clinic and ensure that veterans in North Central Washington receive the care they deserve,” Sen. Murray wrote in an email when asked for comment on this story. “There is more work to be done, but this CBOC is an important foundation for access to care in their own community for veterans in the Wenatchee region.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151