Changes on the horizon at Veterans' Affairs clinic

ELIZABETHTOWN - The future of the Veteran's Affairs Clinic at Elizabethtown Community Hospital is unclear as the hospital attempts to negotiate an agreement that will make it feasible to operate.

According to Hospital Administrator Rod Boula, the multi-year contract the hospital has with the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs is now being renegotiated after the government agency opted not to renew it in November 2008.

The outpatient clinic, one of dozens administered by Veterans' Affairs throughout New York State, employs hospital staff and medical equipment to treat veterans throughout the North Country. It operates under the umbrella of its parent hospital: The Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany. Like it does with many hospitals, Veterans' Affairs contracts with ECH to provide services and equipment. In return, the hospital is reimbursed based on the number of patients it sees at the clinic.

According to hospital board chairman Ulrich Hoffman, ECH lost $60,000 under last year's reimbursement contract with Veterans' Affairs.

"The board is very anxious to continue the VA clinic here," said Hoffman, "but we can't eat the cost because it affects the rest of the hospital."

At this point, Boula said, the hospital is trying to negotiate a contract that would, among other things, require Veterans' Affairs to reimburse the hospital for a minimum of 14 patients per day, ensuring the hospital could meet its operating costs for the clinic.

In addition to not renewing the contract, Veterans Affairs also stated its intent to more strictly enforce some of its policies.

"The way things are run in the VA clinic is going to change from what it was before, and our veterans may not like it," said Boula, explaining how the Albany office is emphasizing its policy requiring 30-minute sessions for each patient; no more, no less.

"Before, we could see up to 14 patients before noon," said Boula. "We could have brief visits for people with minor problems and devote more time to those who needed it." It's that unique approach, he said, which has attracted veterans from throughout Essex County, as well as neighboring counties.

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