U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar is "cautiously optimistic" that a health clinic for veterans will be built in Northwest Colorado.
But if local veterans hope to have a clinic built here, more of them need to enroll in Veterans' Affairs health care programs, Salazar said.
The Denver Democrat was in Craig on Friday to meet with about 200 local veterans at American Legion Post No. 62, formerly Shadow Mountain Clubhouse. Salazar's brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, and representatives from Veterans Affairs also attended the meeting.
To access Veterans Affairs health care, local vets have to drive to the VA hospital in Grand Junction. Including time spent at the doctor's office, veterans say the trip from Craig to Grand Junction often takes an entire day.
Local veterans have been trying for years to get a Community Based Outpatient Clinic built in Northwest Colorado so they can get medical care locally.
"If we had a CBOC in Northwest Colorado, we would be able to provide better care," Ken Salazar said. "It's a very important project, something that has been on my mind for a long time."
The Salazars said veteran health care in rural areas is one of their chief concerns.
"All of us want to try to bring better health care to rural veterans," John Salazar, D-Manassa, said.
The VA is considering building two clinics this year -- one in Goodland, Kan., and one in Northwest Colorado -- Ken Salazar said.
There are 11 clinics in Colorado, but none of them in the northwest corner of the state.
"This is where we see the big hole," Ken Salazar said.
A clinic in Craig could serve veterans from Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties, said Michael Murphy, director of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Grand Junction.
The clinic would provide primary care, but veterans would have to go to another facility to see a specialist, Murphy said.
Murphy has been at the VA hospital in Grand Junction for 18 months. He said improving care for veterans in Northwest Colorado always has been a concern.
"This issue in Northwest Colorado -- it's not a new one," Murphy said.
The biggest hurdle for building a clinic in Craig is the number of veterans here, said Ronald Fulk of VA administration.
There are 3,596 veterans in Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties, but only 369 have enrolled in and used VA health care in the past three years, Fulk said.
If there were more veterans enrolled, the VA would be more likely to consider building a clinic in the region, Fulk said.
But some people at Friday's meeting said area veterans aren't enrolled because the closest VA facility is in Grand Junction.
"We have a lot of people who are not registered in the system ... because of the drive," said Charley Watkins, of Craig.
Watkins is one of the veterans who has been trying for years to get a facility built in Craig.
Ken Salazar said the best thing veterans can do to improve their chances of getting a local clinic is to register with the VA, which they can do at the Veterans Service Office, 480 Barclay St.
When he gets back to Wash--ington, D.C., Ken Salazar said he plans to meet with the director of the VA to encourage the administration to build a clinic in Craig.
Watkins said after Friday's meeting that he felt more confident that a clinic would be built in Northwest Colorado.
"Today was a great day for everybody," Watkins said.