A photo caption in yesterday's Metro section incorrectly identified Douglas North's position at a medical clinic in Woodbridge. He is a physician's assistant. (Published 8/14/87)

Mederic J. Lord, a retired Army chief warrant officer, walked into the cheery blue storefront medical clinic in Woodbridge the other day without an appointment. Five minutes later, he was sent to the laboratory for tests.

"It took longer to fill out the papers," said Lord, 68, who moved to Fredericksburg, Va., from New Jersey a month ago.

The civilian-run Army clinic that Lord patronized represents the uniformed services' newest answer to widespread complaints about long waits and the quality of care at military hospitals, where obtaining a routine appointment can take weeks and even emergency care can consume several hours. Waits at the Woodbridge clinic are seldom more than an hour, officials said.

The Army opened its first clinic in Fairfax County two years ago, now operates three in Northern Virginia and one in Georgia, and hopes to be operating 26 around the nation by 1992. The three local clinics are in Fairfax, Burke and Woodbridge.

The Navy runs four similar clinics, including one in Norfolk, and the Air Force plans to operate its own clinics. They are open to members of any military service, retirees, and their families. Medical care and prescriptions are free.

Washington was chosen as the pilot test of the new idea partly because of its huge concentration of military employes, retirees and dependents -- an estimated half-million people in the Washington-Baltimore area, according to the Army surgeon general's office.

The Army's Fairfax clinic proved so popular that 250 patients a day were walking in by the end of its first week -- double the number forecast -- and it has had to expand to a second floor.

At Woodbridge, the busiest of the Northern Virginia clinics with more than 250 patients a day, "there can be 20 people outside the door" for the 7 a.m. opening, according to Dr. Helen Dalakis, the facility's medical director. Some of its patients have traveled from as far away as Richmond and Baltimore.

The clinics are the equivalent of the family doctor -- designed for patients with colds, flu, minor injuries and small-scale infections, as well as those needing routine baby care and simple diagnostic procedures such as mammograms. At least half the patients at the Woodbridge clinic are children. Patients with chronic illnesses and serious emergencies, such as heart attacks, are sent to military hospitals.

The Woodbridge clinic has 11 examining rooms, X-ray and mammogram equipment, a laboratory, pharmacy, "trauma room" with equipment such as an EKG machine, and a "fitness room" where patients can check their own weight and blood pressure. Aside from the sign identifying the clinic, there is no indication that it is a military facility.

"We get comments from time to time: 'How come no Army drab?' " said Dr. Rudolf Bickel, who supervises the clinics for the PHP Corp. of Falls Church, which operates them under contract to the Army. "We tell them we could not find any camouflage wallpaper."

Steven Lawrie, a Navy chief who lives in Woodbridge and works at the Pentagon, said his three children have been treated at the clinic for ailments ranging from chicken pox to poison ivy. "In comparison to going to {Fort} Belvoir or Quantico, the wait is cut in half," he said. He and his wife, who also is in the military, like the clinic's weekday hours of 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., he said.

The Army facilities, which are open 365 days a year, parallel a civilian trend toward "doc in a box" clinics that appeal to patients by offering longer hours and quicker care than private physicians or hospital emergency rooms. Operated by civilian firms under contract to the military, the clinics also exemplify the growing reliance of the military on private enterprise to perform basic services such as maintenance and medical care.

"We've become a lot more customer-oriented," said Col. Robert Slay, the clinics' program manager in the Army's Health Services Command in San Antonio. "We're in the same boat everyone else is, with both parents having to work. When can they take little Johnny in for his school physical and shots?"

The Army's PRIMUS clinics -- Primary Care for the Uniformed Services -- have not reduced the workload at the area's military hospitals, with the exception of the Quantico Marine base, which has seen a 15 to 20 percent drop, officials said. In fact, monthly visits to area military health care facilities have risen by 18,000 to 20,000 since the local clinics opened, indicating they are helping a "ghost population" who did not get care before, officials said.

The clinics are less costly to the Army than the military's CHAMPUS supplemental health plan {Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services}, which pays bills for military dependents and retirees who go to private doctors.

The average cost of a CHAMPUS visit, partly paid by the patient, is nearly $102, in part because it is based on what the private physician charges. The average cost of a clinic visit is less than $50, because the Army pays the clinics a fixed fee per patient.