SANTA ROSA -- The Veterans Administration clinic in Santa Rosa will expand its operations by some 6,000 square feet at its 3841 Brickway Blvd. location after seeing significant growth in demand from returning veterans, particularly for some specialty services such as optometry.

Audrey Stephens, clinical administrator, said the new space will compliment its existing 22,000 square feet and will enable the clinic to breathe more easily as it attempts to treating a growing caseload of clients. The clinic hopes to have the new space built out by late fall this year or possibly early 2013.

"We've had exponential growth," Ms. Stephens said. "We kind of surprised ourselves."

The expanded wing will initially house a full-time optometrist, with the hopes to add a second one in the near future. It will also enable the VA to expand its prosthetic department and add a wheelchair clinic. An expanded waiting room and a larger group room for mental health services are also part of the expansion plans, as is a new cafeteria, depending on funding and on space.

A change in the rules regarding access to eyeglasses and hearing aids for veterans was approved by Congress, which in turn created a much larger demand for those services, Ms. Stephens said, adding that the Santa Rosa clinic draws frequently from Mendocino and Lake counties, which have primary care clinics but not as much specialty services.

"You can imagine the traffic that created," she said.

Last year, the clinic saw over 7,200 patients. This year, it's on track to see more than 7,500, with projections increasing in the near future as veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, the clinic saw about 5,000 patients. Staffing has also increased significantly, Ms. Stephens said.

"When we moved over here two plus years ago, we thought we were going to expand our staff to 65. We're now at 106," she said.

The increased services at the VA have also helped drive the expansion, Ms. Stephens said.

"In general, all the other specialty services compared to our old location created a lot of word of mouth," she said. "A lot of people don't want to go to San Francisco, and why should they? Frankly, a lot of our population is older and in pain. Why go there when you can come here?"

The clinic also hopes to add a second dentist down the road. In 2009, the clinic expanded significantly from its original Chanate Road location to the Brickway Boulevard location, adding 14 exam rooms and two treatment rooms. That expansion also added dental surgery, physical therapy, on-site blood and x-ray processing and podiatry services.  It also has telemedicine capabilities. 

The clinic is working with Basin Street Properties to decide on an architect and a contractor.