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VA clinic touches many lives in its first year

Business is booming at the Inverness VA Outpatient Clinic, which just celebrated its first anniversary.

The clinic, 401 N Central Ave., provides primary health care for members of Citrus County's large (25,000 or so) veteran community. The clinic averages 28 visits per day.

U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, and other community leaders worked hard to persuade the Department of Veterans Affairs to open the clinic. The main benefit: reducing the number of trips to Gainesville to receive medical care.

So far, so good. The clinic boasts 1,693 "unique patients." A unique patient is a patient who has been assigned to receive care at the clinic and actually has received services, according to John Pickens, a government spokesman.

Of the 1,693 unique patients, 1,382 are Citrus residents. The others come from Lake, Marion, Sumter, Levy and other surrounding counties, Pickens said.

The number of unique patients is on the rise, as evidenced by Veterans Affairs' decision to increase staff and services just one year after opening the clinic doors.

A second doctor, Gira Shah, joined Rebecca Stephens in April. A second registered nurse has come on board, and a second medical administration specialist is scheduled to start in October. The clinic also employs a nurse practitioner and a health technician.

In addition to the primary care, the clinic provides a class for people with diabetes, a psychology clinic and group and a wound clinic. Smoking cessation help is offered, as is limited in-home care as necessary.

Thurman's spokeswoman said the congresswoman's staffers have received favorable reviews from constituents. They aren't the only ones.

"The county veterans have been very, very receptive and very, very pleased with the quality of care they have been receiving. I think it's exceeded everyone's expectations," said J.J. Kenney, the county's veterans service officer, who helps countless veterans navigate government agencies and paperwork.

Complaints? "There have been a few, but not many," he reported. "The good comments outweigh the bad tenfold."

"The interest in the clinic has skyrocketed," said Beverly Newman, the clinic's medical administrative specialist. She explains enrollment issues and handles appointments, among other things.

One of those "other things" is helping field the 100 to 150 phone calls the clinic receives each day from patients and potential patients. Volunteers also help shoulder the load.

Newman said patients still must go to Gainesville or elsewhere in the VA system to seek medical specialists. But at least they don't have to drive as far for primary care. "They like not traveling. We are accessible," she said.

And flexible. Newman, who has 20 years of experience working in the VA medical system, said she has been interested to see how many retired veterans live here and what kinds of schedules they keep. A good number live in Citrus part time, spending winters elsewhere, she said.

For after-hours questions, the clinic has a telephone service patients can call with questions. A team of nurses based in Lake City fields the calls.

"We have grown quite a bit," Newman said. "We are growing with the area's needs."

Veterans who have questions about their eligibility to receive services should call Kenney's office at 527-5411.

_ Jim Ross writes about medical issues in Citrus County. Reach him at 860-7302.