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VA seeks space in Hall County for a bigger clinic
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Reina Banegas works with a ECK machine Wednesday afternoon at the Veterans Administration clinic in Oakwood.

0913CLINICaud

Listen as Dr. Michael Streleckis talks about growth at the Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, as well as plans for a larger clinic in Hall County.

OAKWOOD — The Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic at 3931 Mundy Mill Road opened 10 years ago with the plan to relieve overcrowded operations in Decatur.

“In reality, what has happened is there were an awful lot of veterans living up in this area who (lived too far away from) the Decatur VA,” Dr. Michael Streleckis, who has practiced at the clinic since its opening.

The clinic started with Streleckis and one mid-level provider. Over the years, as demand has grown, the clinic worked its way up to three physicians and two mid-level providers in primary care, as well as a psychiatrist, psychologist and social workers.

“Unfortunately, with that expansion, about four or five months ago, we had to close to new patients,” Streleckis said. “We have just exceeded the capacity of the clinic.”

But for area veterans, good news lies ahead.

The VA is looking for new, larger space in the area, having advertised for lease proposals.

The Oakwood clinic, which sits across from Gainesville State College at the entrance to Walmart, was expanded recently to 4,500 square feet from 3,500.

The VA wants to lease up to 16,397 square feet of space and is interested in a lease of up to 20 years.

According to a newspaper legal notice, the department is considering a location between Dawsonville Highway to the north and Lights Ferry Road to the south.

“The current plan was for us to expand next year, but because of the fiscal crunch, we’re probably looking at 2011,” Streleckis said.
In September 2010, the VA plans to open a clinic in Blairsville, likely reducing some of the demand on Oakwood, he said.

“So hopefully, even before we expand, we should be able to ... take on some additional veterans in the area,” Streleckis said.

Until then, veterans new to the area will have to seek treatment at either the Lawrenceville or Decatur clinic.

“I don’t like to drive (to Decatur) and a lot of our veterans are 80, 90 years old and they really don’t like to drive there — they just can’t safely,” Streleckis said.

“We have some patients who are driving two to three hours to come here.”

Greg Kendall, spokesman for the Atlanta VA Medical Center, said 4,537 patients are assigned to the Oakwood clinic. That’s up from 4,159 in October 2005.

Garry Bratcher, charge nurse at the clinic the past five years, said he lives next to a veteran who wants to go to the Oakwood clinic.
Bratcher said he has explained the options: travel a good distance or wait a couple of years.

“He’s not doing anything right now,” he said. “He just recently retired, so I think that financially he’s OK right now. But his drop in income would make him eligible (for services).

“I’ve got a feeling he’s just going to wait (until the new clinic opens), and he’s in good health right now — so it’s just an issue of getting into the system.”

The new clinic could feature some specialists, Streleckis said.

“There’s a lot of (services) we don’t have here and driving down to the Atlanta VA is a big inconvenience,” he said.

Army veteran Kevin Tate, 35, of Gainesville is one of those who could benefit from the expanded clinic.

An Oakwood patient, he is recovering from a liver transplant and lives with diabetes.

“I still have to go to the main VA (in Atlanta) to see the advanced liver team and ... my doctor for diabetes,” Tate said. “If they are able to incorporate those doctors at the new facility, that would be great.”

And even if he still has to make the trips once or twice a year to Atlanta, where the wait to see a doctor can be lengthy, that would be more bearable.

“That would be a whole lot better,” Tate said.

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