Maine is among a half-dozen states selected to take part in a federal program that will use mobile clinics to provide health care to military veterans living in rural areas, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday.

Three of the states chosen to participate in the program — Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming — will share a single mobile unit, but Maine, Washington and West Virginia will each have its own rolling clinic. The four mobile clinics are expected to be operational by early 2009.

According to spokesman James Doherty of the VA Medical Center in Togus, the sparsely settled counties of Somerset, Piscataquis and Franklin will be served by Maine’s new mobile clinic. Veterans in those counties currently travel the greatest distances to get to one of the VA’s existing Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, or CBOCs, he said.

Combined, the three counties are home to a total of 4,655 veterans enrolled in the VA’s health care program, but only about 3,544 currently make use of their benefits. Doherty said many vets have coverage through their employers or other sources, but acknowledged that some may go without care because it’s too hard to get to an existing clinic. The new mobile clinic will make it easier for all enrolled veterans in these areas to get the care they need, he said.

The clinic on wheels will offer the medical services of a primary care doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant, along with a registered nurse and a mental health professional. Staff will probably be assigned permanently to the mobile clinic and not drawn from other sites, Doherty said.

Additional mental health services may be offered through computer-based “tele-medicine” technology that connects vets to mental health professionals at other locations, he said. The clinic will not offer laboratory or diagnostic services such as X-rays, but those services may be obtained from local hospitals or other health care providers.

This is not Maine’s first experience with a mobile VA clinic. A specially outfitted recreational vehicle served veterans in the Calais area from 1992 to 1998 and then briefly set up in Rumford. Both communities now host full-time, fixed-site CBOCs, along with other clinics located in Bangor, Caribou, Lincoln and Saco. One-day-a-week satellite clinics operate in Fort Kent and Houlton. An out-patient clinic at the Togus campus near Augusta also provides primary care.

The new mobile clinic will not be in a self-contained RV-type vehicle, Doherty said, but in a large trailer. A private trucking company will be contracted to haul the trailer from site to site. The tractor-trailer system is designed to eliminate the mechanical difficulties that plagued the earlier mobile clinic, he said.

Doherty said details of the mobile unit’s schedule, setup sites and clinical capabilities are still being planned, and that more information will be provided through local outreach and media announcements as its completion nears.