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WASHINGTON -- Groups representing veterans and medical professionals weighed in Tuesday on a national plan to close and move veterans hospitals throughout the country.
The hearing was the first time that outside groups could comment on the plan released in August to a national commission charged with reviewing VA hospital buildings.
In 1999 the General Accounting Office reported that many VA hospitals were under used or too old, wasting billions of dollars.
The department of Veterans Affairs set up the CARES (Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services) program in 2000 to review veterans health care over the next 20 years. The Commission, headed by Everett Alvarez, Jr., is an independent panel established last year to review the national plan.
VA higher ups created the national plan to save money and make hospitals more efficient. The current plan would close 7 hospitals, including those in Pittsburgh, Pa., Lexington, Ky., Brecksville, Ohio, Gulfport, Miss., Marlin, Texas, Waco, Texas and Livermore, Calif. It would also move some services, such as those for blind or paralyzed veterans and long-term care.
The plan includes proposals to share 21 Department of Defense facilities and more university hospitals, and contract some services to other providers, such as Medicare.
The current proposal would reduce unused space by 42 percent and save $60 million a year by 2022, according to the plan.
Tuesday's hearing gave a chance for groups to express their concerns about aspects of the plan.
"The CARES data presupposed that our nation would have no military conflicts during the coming 20 year period," said Gerard Kelly, executive director of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. This is "despite the fact that our armed forces were already engaging in military action in Afghanistan and were clearly preparing to wage war in Iraq as well."
"We can have the best facilities and the greatest physicians the United States of America can provide," said James King, national executive director of AMVETS. "But it's all for naught if the veteran cannot get to the facility or cannot get an appointment."
Others worried that contracting out more services to non-veterans health care centers would comprise care.
"The wholesale use of this operation should be used with caution," said Cathleen Wiblemo, deputy director for health care at the American Legion. "The VA is a provider of care, not a purchaser."
Medical professionals groups worried that closing and moving hospitals would make it harder to train and educate doctors and nurses. About half of all medical school students spend some time working at a VA hospital, according to Dr. Jordan Cohen, president of the association of American medical colleges. VA hospitals employ 214,000 staff.
Moving long-term care centers closer to hospitals and closing old hospitals would improve veteran's health care, said Dr. Robert Roswell, VA undersecretary for health, who designed the plan.
"All health care is local," he said in response to some of the complaints. "I'm not sure we can craft a 1- size- fits- all approach to health care for this very diverse nation."
Health care for veterans underwent a massive change in 1996, when Congress passed a bill allowing all veterans, not just those injured in war, to use VA health services. Last year the VA provided health care to 4.3 million veterans, almost double the 1996 number, in 600 community based outpatient clinics and 162 hospitals, according to the GAO.
But the number of veterans is expected to decline from 25 million today to less than 17 million in 2022, the report said.
The CARES commission has already held hearings at sites where changes might take place to discuss local issues such as the impact of closures on patients and employees.
"I realize these changes will not please everyone, but it is imperative for the Department of Veteran's Affairs to get the most bang out of each taxpayer buck," said Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) at a CARES hearing on August 28th in Decatur, Ga. "The result ... will be more comprehensive and more accessible health care for all of our veterans."
Individuals have until October 20th to submit comments online at the CARES Website (www.carescommission.va.gov).
The commission will begin reviewing the plan next week, and will give its recommendations to Veterans Affairs, secretary Anthony Principi by the middle of December.
Renuka Rayasam's email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Cox News Service