Waco Officials Ask Group to
Keep Veterans Hospital Open
by Angela K.
03 October 2003
BROWN / The Associated Press WACO, Texas — More than 1,500 people
gathered Friday at a hearing by a government commission considering
whether to close the Waco Veterans Hospital and six others nationwide.
Commission members heard nearly five hours of testimony from city
officials, community leaders, veterans groups and hospital employees.
Their comments about why the facility should remain open were frequently
interrupted by spirited applause, cheers and some standing ovations.
"You should understand that the VA hospital thread is strong and
has been interwoven in this community for 70 years," Mayor Linda
Ethridge told the commission at the Waco Convention Center. "If you
pull that strand away, you will badly fray the social fabric that
veterans and their families depend on. Please don't do that."
The 71-year-old Waco hospital employs 800 people, served 17,000
patients last year and has 250 beds, mainly for psychiatric services. It
has the region's only rehabilitation program for blind veterans and is
one of three veterans hospitals in Texas with acute psychiatric care.
Closing the Waco VA hospital will result in an increase in crime,
homelessness and improperly treated mental illness, said Dr. Greg
Blaisdell, chairman of the psychiatry department of Providence DePaul
Center, a psychiatric facility in Waco.
Blaisdell said veterans will "feel abandoned by the same
government that asked them to serve to their last full measure of
Audience members weren't allowed to address the commission Friday but
could submit written comments. Also submitted was a petition with more
than 34,000 signatures of those opposing the hospital closure.
Battaglia, a member of the Department of Veterans Affairs
Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services commission, said Friday
that the group will consider the impact to the community and patients,
quality of care and cost.
The commission, which is holding hearings in cities of other targeted
hospitals, will make a recommendation on whether to close the hospitals
to VA Secretary Anthony Principi, who is to decide by year's end.
Principi has said that shuttering outdated facilities would save
millions of dollars a year.
In August, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a plan to
close VA hospitals in seven cities, open others and retarget services in
a broad restructuring of its health care services.
In the proposal for Waco, outpatient services would be handled at a
new location, possibly a clinic that could be built outside Waco.
Those who need inpatient treatment would go to Temple, about 35 miles
south of Waco. Last year the Temple VA hospital served nearly 51,000
people as outpatients and has 700 inpatient beds.
Sturdevant, 53, goes to the Waco VA hospital several times a
week for the therapeutic swimming pool and post-traumatic stress
disorder group therapy sessions. He said he would have trouble driving
to Temple and doubts the same treatment would be offered.
"I don't see myself being able to cope like I do now," said
Sturdevant, who wears hearing aids and walks with a cane after his
broken legs didn't heal properly after Vietnam.
Kent Keahey, a member of Waco's task force to save the hospital, said
about 55 percent of veterans who receive acute psychiatric treatment
there are in Waco's McLennan County or contiguous counties. He said
twice as many veterans in the Waco area need such care than those in
Travis and Williamson counties, which are south of Temple.
"It is apparent that the CARES plan, if adopted, will further
shift the VA's focus away from the mentally ill and toward the provision
of outpatient services to lower priority and higher income veteran
populations without any specific plan for how the needs of the mentally
ill will be met or by whom," Keahey said.
The other VA hospitals being considered for closure are in
Canandaigua, N.Y.; Pittsburgh (Highland Drive); Lexington, Ky. (Leestown);
Brecksville, Ohio; Gulfport, Miss.; and Livermore, Calif.