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VA hospital closure report due this week

February 10, 2004|by DAVID DISHNEAU

FREDERICK, Md. - Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi said Monday he will receive a commission's report this week that is expected to recommend closing some hospitals and opening more outpatient clinics.

The report, due Thursday, stems from the department's proposal in August to shift focus by placing patient care closer to where veterans live and shedding underused and outdated facilities. The proposal is dubbed Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services, or CARES.

"Unless we change our infrastructure, we will be relegated to 20th-century medicine instead of 21st-century medicine," Principi told members of an American Legion post in Frederick. "My goal is not to have anyone fall through the cracks."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has been leading a group of Democratic and Republican senators opposed to the closing of seven targeted VA hospitals, including one in Canandaigua, N.Y. They said in November that VA planners had not spent enough time studying veterans' long-term care and mental health needs or weighing the impact on rural veterans.

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Principi said there is no time to lose. He cited a General Accounting Office report that the VA is wasting $1 million a day heating and maintaining extra infrastructure.

"Just think how much that money could be used for more outpatient clinics, more specialty centers and ambulatory centers of excellence to provide you with more and better care," Principi said.

He said three VA hospitals in New York City, including one built in 1920, have 3,000 beds but fewer than 400 patients, due to improved service delivery and policy changes favoring outpatient care, including treatment of many psychiatric patients.

Principi said the demand for veterans health care has soared since a 1998 law made all 25 million U.S. veterans eligible for VA care, which previously served mainly as a safety net for disabled veterans and those injured while on active duty.

He said the number of veterans using the system has risen to more than 5 million from 3 million in 1998. Many are using the 700 community-based outpatient clinics, which did not exist before 1994, Principi said.

"I am intent on continuing to open more community-based outpatient clinics," he said.

Vietnam-era Army veteran William L. Rife, 62, of Woodsboro, said he would like a VA clinic closer to home. He said he travels every two months to a clinic in Hagerstown or a VA hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., both about 35 miles away.

"It would serve a lot of the veterans that live in this area," he said.

In addition to Canandaigua, the proposed restructuring would close hospitals in Pittsburgh; Lexington, Ky.; Brecksville, Ohio; Gulfport, Miss.; Livermore, Calif., and Waco, Texas.

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