November 7 – Southern Maine Veterans Services will soon have a new home – and a much improved home.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs’ 62,000 square foot community ambulatory clinic, nearing completion on West Commercial Street in Portland, is expected to serve up to 400 veterans per day. It will consolidate the services now available to veterans at clinics in Saco and on Fore Street in Portland.
The $ 64 million project will provide a wide range of medical, mental health and education services to many of the state’s estimated 114,000 veterans. At the same time, it is designed to be a living monument to their service.
“There will be no way to go wrong what this building is for when you walk down Commercial Street,” said Tyler Watson, engineer, senior project manager and strategic planner for VA Maine, during a recent visit to the installation.
Key to this recognition will be the large glass front door with illuminated emblems recognizing all branches of the US military. Inside the building, a patient information and reception center at the entrance will feature a highlighted world map with campaign ribbons of the many conflict zones where Maine veterans served.
Planning for the new CBOC, one of many under construction or slated to open in 2022 across the country, began in 2010. The opening of the Portland clinic follows the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan – the long-awaited end of a conflict in which many Mainers participated.
While full counts are not readily available for all Mainers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past two decades, the National Guard reports that the Mainers have made some 3,000 deployments to one of the countries, or both, during those two wars. Congressional records supporting the construction of the new Portland facility show that the number of veterans of all eras eligible for service here will steadily increase, reaching more than 104,000 in 2024, before dropping to around 88,000 in 2034.
The services offered at the new facility will include primary care, mental health, specialized services in surgery and medicine, dental and eye care, audiology, physiotherapy, prosthetic support, a phlebotomy laboratory, radiology and telehealth. Veterans receiving these services now from Fore Street or Saco clinics will not see any disruption in care – the transition to the new building on West Commercial Street will be organized to ensure smooth operations.
Telemedicine technologies throughout the new facility will further improve service to Maine veterans in rural areas, according to the VA. The clinic will also serve as a teaching site, with an area dedicated to enhancing affiliate relationships with Tufts Medical School and Maine Medical Center.
In total, the clinic will employ more than 140 people, including doctors, nurses, other specialists, support staff and VA police for security. On-site parking will include a staff area, as well as a 400-space patient parking garage.
The building is designed for comfort and privacy, but also has spaces where veterans can meet for group counseling. The classrooms will house training and education programs for veterans, staff and volunteers. Another room will be dedicated to quiet reflection, prayer or meditation.
Harpswell veteran John H. Ott, 77, sees the new CBOC as a big step forward. Ott, who served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War, has health problems related to exposure to the chemical defoliation agent Orange. He said the VA system had always provided him with good care, although processing and wait times were sometimes a problem. “There are still a lot of jokes out there,” he said.
Ott currently receives some health care services from the Fore Street Clinic and others from the VA main campus in Togus. He was especially excited to hear about the addition of a veterans-only parking garage, a major improvement over the limited on-street parking around Fore Street.
“The parking lot there is atrocious,” Ott said. “You have to fight to find a place, but the service at the clinic has always been exceptional.”
Project manager Watson said a key part of the new building is an on-site back-up power generation system – in the event of widespread power outages caused by inclement weather or other disaster, this will allow the clinic to remain open both operationally and as a shelter. He also noted that the veterans’ waiting areas have been designed for comfort and privacy and will feature Maine themes and colors such as pine, ocean, loon and moose, all designed to easily connect veterans with their caregivers. These spaces will also have amenities for waiting family members or friends, including plenty of charging stations for mobile devices.
Ott, the Vietnam veteran, appreciates how the new clinic is designed to honor service, while providing state-of-the-art care.
“It sends the message that we really care about you and are going to take care of you,” he said. “Since the officers, we have all done our part and we all deserve the same care.”