CARIBOU, Maine — Twenty-five years ago military veterans living in remote or rural parts of the country faced long trips for health care at Veterans’ Administration hospitals.

Today, thanks to a program that got its start in Aroostook County, veterans have access to more than 900 VA community-based outpatient clinics around the country.

Earlier this week some of those veterans joined health care providers, VA officials and politicians to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the country’s first VA outpatient clinic at the Cary Medical Center Campus in Caribou.

“This [clinic] is a real success story because of the handful of veterans, Cary Medical Center and the [Aroostook County Congressional] delegation who worked to make it possible,” Ryan Lilly, director of the Maine VA Healthcare System, said at Thursday’s celebration. “There are 11 of these clinics in Maine now and more than 900 in the country and it all came about thanks to this.”

Access to quality medical care is crucial for the country’s veterans, Lilly said, noting the majority in Maine live long distances from the Togus VA hospital in Augusta.

Among them is U.S. Navy and Vietnam-era veteran Ken Powers of Caribou.

“If not for the VA health care system and this clinic I’m not sure what I would do,” Powers said. “I use this clinic religiously for everything.”

Powers started coming to the Caribou clinic when it first opened in 1987.

“I’ve been here longer than the staffers,” he said jokingly. “If not for this clinic I’d have to drive all the way down to Togus.”

It makes sense the first-of-its-kind VA community-based clinic would come from Maine, Lilly said, noting the first VA hospital in the country opened its doors in Maine in 1866.

“The VA has been a great story here in Maine,” he said. “And look how things have changed.”

The Caribou clinic, for example, has grown from two employees and a doctor “housed in two broom closets back-to-back” to a 5,000-square-foot facility with 20 employees offering a broad range of health-related services, Lilly said, with additional clinics operating in Fort Kent and Houlton.

“We offer primary care, mental health care and treat chronic diseases here,” Lilly said. “Many of our veterans are aging and are in need of these kinds of services.”

At the same time, many veterans seeking medical care are embracing new telemedicine technology over the Internet through which they can talk with health care providers, Lilly said.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is access to care,” Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, New England VA network director, said.

“This celebration is really an impressive deal because the basic outreach clinic that started right here in Caribou has become a phenomenon across the country,” Mayo-Smith said. “It has really changed how the VA delivers care [and] is very popular among the veterans.”

It was a change that took close to eight years of lobbying and advocacy, according to Kris Doody, RN, Cary’s CEO.

“Even when representatives in the VA system itself said that the chances for a VA outpatient clinic in Caribou were zero, the Aroostook County Veterans Medical Facility Research and Development, Inc. would not give up,” she said. “This remarkable group of veterans representing multiple veterans organizations took off their hats and came together as one and won the day.”

That same group went on to secure a veterans’ home and residential care facility at Cary, Doody added.

“I know I speak for everyone associated with Cary Medical Center when I say that we have been truly honored to serve veterans here in northern Maine over the past 25 years,” said Doody, who was a staff nurse at the hospital when the VA clinic opened in 1987.

A big part of the clinic’s success, Smith-Mayo said, is its staff.

“The people are here are excellent and very dedicated,” he said. “Cary Medical Center is also dedicated to the veterans and is an excellent partner.”

Looking ahead to future care, Smith-Mayo said the clinic will soon unveil another pilot project and again be among the first in the nation.

Project ARCH — standing for Access Recieved Closer to Home — will allow veterans to receive specialized health care services through contractual arrangements with non-VA providers.

For veterans like Powers, it mean access to more health care options here in Aroostook County.

“I am absolutely happy with this kind of care with the VA,” Powers said. “I tell every vet I meet if they haven’t already done it, enroll in the VA health system.”

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.