Waco Officials Ask Group to Keep Veterans Hospital Open
by Angela K.
Associated Press
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 devotion."

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.

Charles 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Principi has said that shuttering outdated facilities would save millions of dollars a year.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.

Roger 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.




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