On Tuesday, Glen Cove joined three other Long Island communities taking part in a pilot program aimed at improving veterans’ access to medical care.
Previously, local veterans in need of care who live on the North Shore had to head east to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport — a 45-minute drive. Now they can schedule appointments in a mobile unit, on Hill Street in Glen Cove, in the parking lot of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 347.
The bus will be available for appointments every Tuesday from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., providing what Tony Jimenez, Glen Cove’s director of veterans affairs, called “a real valuable tool that our veterans so richly deserve for the sacrifices they’ve made for their country.”
In Glen Cove, there are about 300 veterans enrolled in the VA, Jimenez said, most of whom served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. “We’re aging a little bit,” he said. “We all have many medical issues, many going back to our time in the service, particularly Agent Orange” — an herbicide used in the Vietnam War to strip trees of their leaves and the enemy of its cover from air strikes. In the years since its use, the chemical has been determined to cause several types of cancers.
Jimenez said that in the week before he spoke with the Herald Gazette, he had three appointments at the Northport VA center. Given the drive, and less-than-ideal parking that sometimes forces patients to walk long distances from their vehicles to the center, an appointment can be a whole-day affair.
Levi Spellman, a spokesman for the facility and an Army veteran who served in Korea, said that the mobile-unit program was an effort “to bring care in the community,” adding that the unit “is a way we’re looking to be on the forefront of how care is administered.”
Because it’s a pilot program, Spellman said, VA officials planned to take a close look at how local veterans respond to it. “We’re going to have to collect this data over time,” he said, noting that it was too early to tell from the program’s three other locations — in New Hyde Park, Patchogue and Riverhead — whether it would be successful in Glen Cove.
So far, Spellman said, “The participation … is not as high as you would think.” He speculated that that was because veterans tend to schedule several appointments in the same day to minimize the hassle of a trip to Northport, a habit that would be hard to break. “We’re asking people to change their current model of care,” he said. “That takes time, and word of mouth.”
According to Jimenez, the program will be flexible, to accommodate the needs of the veterans who make appointments. “I’m told that it’s going to start as primary care, and then expand as the need develops,” he said. “If there are predominantly heart issues, they might have a cardiac doctor come out to see a number of appointments.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from Glen Cove, said at a ribbon-cutting event for the mobile unit that he hopes that by demonstrating a need for veterans services in the community — especially among younger veterans — the program can ultimately lead to a permanent, fully operational VA clinic in Glen Cove.
The VA has worked with the Glen Cove VFW to ensure that whenever the mobile unit is parked in the post’s lot, vets will be able to use the building as a waiting room, to stay warm and dry while they wait for their appointments.