- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a plan yesterday that would close seven VA hospitals, open facilities in more efficient areas and retarget services in a major restructuring of its health care services.

Thirteen facilities are targeted for major mission changes, department spokeswoman Karen Fedele said. The VA wants to close hospitals in Canandaigua, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Lexington, Ky.; Brecksville, Ohio; Gulfport, Miss.; Livermore, Calif.; and Waco, Texas.

The proposal would also open hospitals in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.; add centers for the blind in Biloxi, Miss., and Long Beach, Calif.; and place spinal-cord-injury centers in Denver; Minneapolis; Little Rock, Ark.; and Syracuse or Albany, N.Y.

VA restructuring began June 5 last year to shift the agency’s focus to outpatient care, place services where they are needed most and save money by eliminating underused and outdated services and facilities.

“This is probably the most comprehensive assessment of VA infrastructure since World War II,” VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said.

A 15-member commission appointed by Mr. Principi will consider the proposed changes and hold hearings in about a week. After the hearings, the commission will make recommendations to Mr. Principi.

As with military-base closings, the secretary must accept or reject the plan in entirety. His decision is expected by the end of the year.

Mr. Principi said the proposed restructuring is not only about closing and realigning facilities, but also about expansion and modernization. The objective is to meet the needs of veterans for the next 20 years, he said.

“I’m not trying to save money. I’m trying to transform an infrastructure that has been built or acquired over the past 50 years,” he said.

The restructuring is estimated to cost $4.6 billion over 20 years, with some expenses offset by closing hospitals or leasing out unused facilities.

The restructuring has triggered opposition, including legislation sponsored by Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a Democratic presidential candidate, that would give Congress 60 days to review proposed hospital closings. A House version sponsored by Rep. Dennis Moore, Kansas Democrat, has 118 co-sponsors. Neither bill has been acted on.

Protests have occurred at VA hospitals considered targets for closure.

“At a time when many troops are overseas and will need these services when they come home, you want to bolster our veterans’ health care, not gut it,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

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