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Open house introduces community to renovated Watertown VA clinic

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The expanded Watertown outpatient clinic of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs received positive reviews as it was shown to the public during an open house Thursday morning.

Peter J. Fazio, director of the Jefferson County Veterans Service Agency, said the clinic’s expansion and new staffing were necessary to keep up with demand.

“Vet or not, health care isn’t an if, it’s a when,” Mr. Fazio said. “It’s not a luxury. They have to have it.”

The clinic, in the CANI Building, 19472 Route 11, is run by Humana, which bought the clinic’s previous operator, Valor Healthcare, in August. Overall, the Kentucky-based company operates 28 VA clinics in multiple states.

The clinic will use four patient-aligned care teams to manage care, with two of them already in use. The other two are scheduled to be ready by spring. The model mirrors similar teams used at VA facilities in Syracuse, Rome and Binghamton.

On Thursday, attendants were working on areas of the renovated second floor, which was acquired to support two of the teams. The 2,700-square-foot space is in addition to the 4,300 square feet of space already in use.

The clinic’s administrator, Leah L. Neely, said the clinic recently hired its last team-leading provider, who will be available in February or March, along with multiple staff members who will fill out the rest of the teams. Ms. Neely has been at the clinic for about a year, after several years at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, Ogdensburg.

The clinic’s new hirings effectively will double the staff at the facility.

Richard G. Kazel, manager of the Syracuse VA’s medical/surgical care, said earlier this month that the increased staffing and technology upgrades, such as teleconference technology, will add about $1 million per year to the clinic’s costs.

Lt. Col. Steven E. Shipley, deputy commander for administration for Fort Drum’s U.S. Army Medical Department Activity, said the facility’s move to the team model would allow soldiers to have a more fluid transition from medical care they receive during active duty to care going into retirement.

Col. Shipley said the post’s primary care has been moved toward the Army Medical Home model, which like the clinic pairs patients with a team of medical providers who can track their status more easily.

“There’s really no break in that,” Col. Shipley said. He said the clinic’s workload would increase as more soldiers retired or left the military.

Nicola L. Luciani, Watertown, who served for 23 years in the Air Force and previously was state commander of the Disabled American Veterans organization, said he had heard complaints in the past from other veterans about waiting times at the clinic, which he attributed partly to the frustration of moving the clinic to Watertown from its previous location in Carthage.

With the changes and increased staffing, Mr. Luciani said, he thought “vets are going to see it for the good.”

“In the long run, this has done good for everyone,” he said.

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