Friends and fellow Vietnam War veterans Carl Olsen, from left, of Caribou, Jim Gehring of Bridgewater, and Craig Fay of Presque Isle, recall the struggles they and other veterans have faced after coming home from service. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County veterans will have to wait a few months longer for a new clinic.

Construction on the veterans outpatient clinic in Presque Isle has been delayed until the end of 2023.

Veterans in rural Aroostook often had to travel three or four hours to visit a clinic in Bangor or Togus in Augusta. In 1987, Caribou opened the country’s first community-based outpatient clinic for veterans, located in the Cary Medical Center complex. But as local veterans age and grow in numbers, they need more services than Caribou’s small clinic can provide. 

“The need is here, but the problem with The County is that there’s a lot of gaps,” said James Gehring of Bridgewater, service officer for the nonprofit Aroostook Veterans Alliance.

The Caribou clinic made it easier for former service members to get medical care, Gehring said. But the site has insufficient space for mental health services or telehealth visits for those who can’t travel, and also lacks capacity for female-focused care. 

The Presque Isle facility will replace the Caribou clinic, and at more than 8,000 square feet it will be 50 percent larger. During a July 2021 groundbreaking, officials projected its completion in February 2022. 

It’s now more than a year later, and the inside of the building is unfinished as the Veterans Administration and contractors deal with supply issues and worker shortages.

As they wait longer for the new clinic, veterans who need specialty services like cardiology have roadblocks to care, Gehring said. Local specialists are overloaded with patients, which means veterans either have to wait for an opening or travel south.

For instance, the waiting list is often longer to see a local cardiologist than a provider at Togus, he said. So once again patients are forced to head to Augusta or Bangor for care, and many don’t have transportation options to make that journey.

“The [Caribou] clinic was done by a group of World War II and Korean veterans collectively that got together to establish some outpatient help, because the closest clinic to Presque Isle was Togus,” Gehring said.

Veterans groups saw the need to expand clinic services about 25 years ago, and appealed to the Veterans Administration for a newer, larger space, he said. Things finally looked promising when construction started at 732 Main St. in Presque Isle in 2021.

The exterior of the new clinic was completed last fall by Ellis Commercial Development Leasing & Management of Hermon. Multiple hiccups have pushed the project’s completion to the end of this year, according to Jonathan Barczyk, public affairs specialist for the Veteran Affairs Maine Healthcare System.

Design adjustments, building material delays and labor market issues are among the problems, Barczyk said. 

Planners also had to amend the original project to incorporate an HVAC system that met Veterans Administration standards. They’ve found and approved a system, but now are seeking a contractor to perform the work, Barczyk said.

The Aroostook Veterans Alliance formed in 2017 to help veterans and their families. One of the group’s priorities is to provide transportation services, which the Veterans Administration does not provide.

The alliance has a team of about six volunteers who drive veterans to Togus and the Bangor Vet Center. It also works with service organizations, like the Presque Isle Rotary Club and Elks Lodge, Aroostook Regional Transportation System and local businesses to travel veterans to appointments, Gehring said.