PORTLAND, Maine — A new federal law will allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to finally begin a long-planned expansion of its health care center in Portland.
Over the next two years, the VA plans to move its Fore Street clinic to a much larger space in the city and begin offering a variety of new health services including dental, hearing and eye care, physical therapy and women’s health services.
The expansion has been in the works since 2015 but was held up by bureaucratic hurdles. It was approved along with more than two dozen other new VA facilities on Saturday when President Donald Trump signed a bill that also allocated $3.9 billion in funding to plug agency budget holes and support its core health programs.
Although a site hasn’t yet been selected, the new Portland clinic will be about six times the size of the existing space and have more than three times the number of employees, according to Ryan Lilly, director of the VA Maine Healthcare System. It will also offer a variety of new specialty services part of the time and allow 12 more medical resident to train in Maine, he said.
The expansion will make it easier for veterans in the Portland area to access a variety of health care services and hopefully encourage more of them to get their service through the VA, Lilly said.
The VA estimates that there are as many as 20,000 veterans in Greater Portland, but currently serves only 8,000 to 9,000 at its clinics in Saco and Portland.
The new clinic will include same-day primary and mental health services, but not emergency care, Lilly said.
John Ripley, a 52-year-old Navy reservist who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, said that he’s been pleased with the health care he’s gotten at the Portland clinic. But the South Portland resident said he’d also be happy not to have to drive to Augusta to visit Togus, the primary facility of the VA Maine Healthcare System.
“Anytime you can save a trip to Togus, which is an hour and a half each way, it’s a bonus,” he said.
Lilly said the VA already has funds allocated for the Portland clinic and hopes to open its doors in 18 to 24 months. While the federal contracting process will still take time, he said the expansion will be hastened by the fact that the VA has been able to plan for the project since it was first proposed in 2015.
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation worked to have approval for the clinic included in the bill that Trump signed on Saturday.
“The much-needed expansion of the Portland VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic is something Maine’s Congressional Delegation has been pushing for a long time now,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st Congressional District. “It’s very exciting to see that our efforts will pay off.”