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Angela Reinhardt / Photo This area is where coordination of care for patients takes place in the Pickens County VA Clinic. Nurses, doctors, and medical support assistants are stationed here to collaborate and discuss patients’ needs.

With full patient load, Pickens VA Clinic looks to hire more physicians

Local vets seem pleased with service at new facility

            After just over a year in operation the Pickens County VA Clinic, which opened in August of 2020, is at max patient capacity with immediate plans to hire more physicians and accommodate more veterans.

            Currently, there are 1,727 vets from Pickens and surrounding areas assigned to the East Church Street clinic. Of those, 132 are women. As of late September, the facility – which employs 29 people – has completed 8,245 appointments. Patients are on average between 60 and 70 years old. Veterans are assigned to the Pickens clinic based on zip code for the permanent address on record.

            Just like most clinics in the VA system, the majority of local appointments requested are for primary care or mental health – but the facility also offers optometry, phlebotomy and lab services, audiology (including hearing aid) services, home-based primary care, social service, medication management, nutrition counseling, and has a Doctor of Pharmacy on site.                 There are options for in-person and telehealth visits for certain types of appointments, such as mental health and primary care.

            Pickens VA Clinic Nurse Manager Rachel Kirby said when all services are taken into account they assist around 60-70 patients on average a day. This includes approximately 10-15 patients for mental health; 15 for laboratory services; around 15 a week for eye services; in addition to other types of appointments.

Rachel Kirby, Pickens VA Nurse Manager, and Kenneth Murphy, Chief Nurse for Atlanta VA Primary Care, at the clinic located on East Church Street.

            According to Kenneth Murphy, Chief Nurse for Atlanta VA Primary Care, they  are in the market for two new physicians for the Pickens clinic. This would allow them to serve an additional 2,200 patients.

            Despite technically being closed to new patients, Murphy noted that, “That’s not a hard closed door,” and added that it’s possible to squeeze in appointments in some cases. A tour of the facility showed a calm waiting room with a patient or two in queue, and  seemingly smoothly-running exam rooms and nurse/doctor station. Patients weren’t waiting in long lines to be seen. 

             Wait times to make an appointment differ at VA clinics depending on what service is needed and what clinic is used. Atlanta VA Public Affairs Officer Gregory Kendall said counter to the perception that appointments can be hard to get, “Overall, we don’t have very long wait times at any of our facilities.”

            The chief nurse noted that new patients may take a little longer to secure an appointment, but that “for established patients it’s not long – and if they are sick enough we can figure out how to squeeze them in possibly that day.”

            To reduce wait times patients can sometimes be sent to a different facility than the one closest to their home.

            Locally in Pickens, appointment wait times also differ based on what service is needed, but can be typically be made in a reasonable timeframe.     

            “Most the time it’s just within a week or two,” nurse manager Kirby said, “but sometimes it’s sooner. It just depends on the doctor and what their schedule is.”

Pickens VA Med Tech Michelle Latouche in the lab where blood work, urine samples, drug tests, and other lab work is performed.

            During the tour of the facility the vision tech said the optometry department is capable of accommodating more patients, but that many veterans don’t realize the service is available at the local clinic. She noted that they currently have low wait times that make driving from out of town desirable to some patients.

            “A lot of veterans are telling other friends about us,” she said. “I’ve had quite a few come from long distances because they want to get exams and our other offices are so full, like down in Atlanta. They are willing to make the drive. You could call today and get an appointment tomorrow.” 

            She pointed out the tall kiosk is in the back corner of the vision screening room where vets select their glasses frames. Contact appointments are not available. 

            When asked if she had a sense of local veterans’ response to the new – and much-anticipated – clinic, the nurse manager said it was overwhelmingly positive and that veterans don’t miss the long drives to the Atlanta area or Blairsville.

            “We have veterans come in every day and talk about how thankful they are we’re here,” she said. “They bring us things like little cookies to tell us how appreciative they are. That really gives them that peace of mind that they can come here.”

            Pickens veteran Bill Craig, Commandant of Marine Corps League #1280, is a patient at the local clinic and said he has heard nothing but positive feedback from fellow vets.

            “The convenience of it beings so close is a huge benefit,” he said. “It’s been a great asset, and I know our vets – from the Marine Corps League, American Legion, Disabled Vets, and others – really utilize it. Everything has been 110 percent there. It’s a pleasant environment, with great personnel who seem friendlier than some other clinic locations I’ve been to. Vets become familiar with them and it’s a generally good experience.”   

            Murphy, the Atlanta VA Chief Nurse, said VA clinics get a bad rap, but that in his experience local clinics are appreciated and create a sense of community among veterans.

            “A lot of the time people want to beat up the VA, but then when you talk about the community clinics they’re really protective of them and have a good relationship with them,” he said. “Unfortunately, the VA gets lumped into a lot of things – there is VA healthcare, which is what we are, VA benefits – all that comes under one blanket and when you start to get into big government I think there is some bad story that stays in your mind.

            “But with these local clinics, what [Kendall and Kirby] were just saying, it’s the same with all my clinics. The veterans come in, they bring goodies, they’re very complimentary. Before COVID  they used to just come and hang out because we establish relationships with the veterans. Especially for the older ones, this is a social hour as much as it is a medical appointment. The more community-based clinics we can get the better services it is for our veterans.”

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