Many veterans will have to wait three to six months before they can be seen at the new VA clinic in Ramsey. Yet they keep lining up in numbers that far exceed expectations.
Five weeks after opening, the state-of-the-art clinic for veterans in the northwestern suburbs has generated so much interest that initially only patients living within 15 miles were allowed to make appointments. It's now open to all veterans, but appointments are being made on a priority basis.
"Veterans who never used VA health care before are coming out of the woodwork," said Allison Lister, director of veterans services for Anoka County, which saw a 65 percent increase in visitors last month over November 2010. Most of those visitors were inquiring about the clinic.
"Everybody and their brother are trying to get there," Lister said.
After a decade of plans, protests and politics, the 20,000-square-foot community-based outreach clinic (CBOC) opened Nov. 15. At the building's dedication days before, several veterans gushed over the building, but said at the time that they preferred to stick with their doctors at VA medical centers in Minneapolis and St. Cloud.
Once veterans realized that their records can easily be transferred from VA medical centers to the clinic, "our phone's been ringing off the hook," said Mitzi O'Brien, CBOC business manager with the Department of Veterans Affairs Health System in Minneapolis.
"I love the convenience," said Vicky Sandhofer-Krolick, 51, an Army veteran from Andover who had been going to St. Cloud for medical care. "The people are super-friendly and warm."
Air Force veteran Charles Swanson, 87, of Andover, made his first visit to the Ramsey clinic Wednesday. "I heard enough to want to transfer from St. Cloud," Swanson said.
That was the sentiment that VA officials hoped they would hear. But they didn't expect to hear it at this volume.
"We didn't know exactly how large or how soon the demand would come in," said clinic director Greg Hausker.
"We're inundated with requests for those initial appointments. We've heard some patients come in and say they love their doctor, that they don't want to leave. We've told them to make their choice, that this isn't a competition, that we're all working together."
Requests from five counties
As of Monday, nearly 3,000 veterans had requested to be seen at the new Ramsey clinic. Of those 2,824 requests, most were from Coon Rapids (436), Brooklyn Park (413), Blaine (410) and Maple Grove (352). There had been requests from 28 cities and five counties by the start of this week.
Rarely do new clinics within an hour's driving distance of two veterans medical centers spark such interest, O'Brien said.
Two years ago, new Wisconsin clinics in Hayward and Rice Lake did not spark immediate growth over the patient clientele of previous clinics in those areas, O'Brien said. Nor did a new clinic in Rochester.
Last year, a new clinic in Mankato attracted 2,800 enrollees -- about 1,000 more than the clinic's previous site, in St. James. But the clinic in Ramsey does not have a former clinic's clientele to draw patients from, O'Brien said.
The clinic's arrival also has given a few Ramsey businesses a shot in the arm, said city administrator Kurt Ullrich. He said there has been noticeably more traffic around the Ramsey COR development area, particularly at the new Falls Café, which was built by James Deal, the developer responsible for building the veterans clinic.
"We're used to health care and VAs," said Anoka service director Lister, a veteran herself. "Then you walk through that place and it's like, 'Holy buckets. Can you believe this?'"
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419