VA medical center for the ax? VA secretary expected to include Northampton facility on closure list

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, home of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Steven Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veteran Services, talks about the VA Center in his office in Northampton Thursday, March 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steven Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veteran Services, talks about the VA Center in his office in Northampton Thursday, March 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steven Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veteran Services, says closing the VA Medical Center would hurt the veterans his agency serves. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, home of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The main building at the Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds is undergoing a renovation, with Williams Building Company as the general contractor. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The main building at the Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds is undergoing a renovation, with Williams Building Company as the general contractor. The Leeds medical center is the main location of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The main building at the Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds is undergoing renovations, with Williams Building Co. as the general contractor. The Leeds facility is the main location of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, home of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The main building at the Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds is undergoing a renovation with Williams Building Company as the general contractor. The medical center in Leeds is the main location of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Rev. Chris Carlisle, executive director of Building Bridges, at the Thursday Veteran's meal at the Greenfield Elks Lodge. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Veterans Jim Fotopulos and Maria Burge, both of Greenfield, have lunch at the Thursday Veteran's meal at the Greenfield Elks Lodge. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Veterans break bread and socialize at the Thursday veterans meal at noon at the Greenfield Elks Lodge. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • MCGOVERN

Published: 3/11/2022 3:04:10 PM
Modified: 3/11/2022 3:04:07 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Local veterans and elected officials are reacting to the news that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could include Northampton’s VA medical center on a list of aging facilities recommended for closure in the coming years.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough is expected to release on Monday a list of facilities and services targeted for the ax — part of a process created by the VA MISSION Act of 2018, under which veteran care will be outsourced to private-sector providers.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, confirmed that the congressman’s office had “recently received word of the recommended closure.”

In a joint statement, McGovern and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said they are opposed to any plan that would lead to the closing of the Northampton center.

“We strongly support keeping the Northampton VA Medical Center open for the thousands of veterans in Western and Central Massachusetts who access its quality health care each and every day,” they said.

MassLive reported Thursday that Monday’s announcement will recommend closing the VA campus in Leeds, moving nursing home care and rehabilitation services to the VA facility in Newington, Connecticut, and moving outpatient and mental health services to an expanded VA clinic in Springfield and other local providers.

MassLive, which obtained a recording of a meeting with VA leaders in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, reported that the VA is recommending new buildings and more services in Springfield, Fitchburg, Pittsfield and across Connecticut. The outlet reported that the decision on Northampton’s facility was made due to its age, increasing maintenance needs and reduced enrollment.

‘Nothing is changing now’

In a statement, Sarah Robinson, spokeswoman for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, said that “there have been no announcements or decisions regarding any VA facilities closing, anywhere.”

Robinson said the VA is conducting a series of market assessments to determine how demand for veteran health care services will change over the next decade. Those findings and recommendations will be submitted to an independent Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission, which will review the material and then make its own recommendations to the president early next year.

“Veterans will always be at the center of what we do,” Robinson said. “The AIR Commission is an opportunity to redesign VA health care to maximize access and outcomes for current and future generations of veterans. It is important to note that any recommendations to the upcoming AIR Commission are just that — recommendations. Nothing is changing now for veteran access to care or VA employees.”

Robinson said the commission’s recommendations could eventually affect VA facilities and staff, but that it’s still too early to know those impacts. Any changes would be years away and would come after decisions by the commission, the president and Congress, as well as engagement with stakeholders.

Why the renovations?

Steve Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veteran Services, said Thursday he’s not surprised that the VA is going through this process. But he is surprised that they’d choose to recommend closing Northampton’s VA medical center after spending so much on renovations there in recent years.

“I serve rural towns, and they don’t want to come to Northampton because they think it’s a city,” Connor said. Having to drive even farther from the Hilltowns — for example, to Springfield — will negatively impact the care those veterans receive, he said.

Connor said the VA MISSION Act was an effort to delegitimize the single-payer health care system that the VA runs on.

John Paradis, a founding organizer of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition and a former VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System spokesman, said Thursday he is skeptical about the private sector being able to provide better health care for veterans and families.

Paradis said there is a process with this that will take time, with plenty of dialogue expected. He said the federal government has been looking at the future of VA health care for some time, and that the number of veterans in the region is expected to decline in the coming years.

“They’re not going to abandon the Pioneer Valley or western Massachusetts,” Paradis said.

But he did say he’s concerned about increased travel times for veterans and how that will affect, for example, veterans receiving the excellent mental health services the Leeds campus is known for.

“Certainly for the Hilltowns and Berkshires it’s always a challenge to access health care,” he said. “My biggest concern are those veterans who now will have to look at traveling even farther for good health care.”

Veteran voices

In Greenfield, veterans at a weekly lunch sponsored by Building Bridges, a veterans organization based in the Pioneer Valley, were upset to learn there could be a recommendation to close the Northampton VA medical center.

“To me, that’s ridiculous,” said Greenfield veteran Don Parda. “They’re trying to get us better services and they’re making it worse.”

The Air Force veteran, who was stationed with the 74th Fighter Squadron in Greenland from 1955 to 1958, said it’s difficult enough to drive to Northampton a few times a week for services. Additional travel time to Springfield is going to make it worse.

“It’s bad enough I have to drive 30 miles back and forth,” Parda said. “It’s doing a disservice to our veterans.”

The Rev. Christopher Carlisle, the executive director of Building Bridges, said a closure of the Northampton VA would greatly affect area veterans, many of whom served in Vietnam.

“It does affect us,” Carlisle said, noting he’s heard pretty positive feedback from veterans about the Northampton facility. “They use the VA a lot for medical and dental services.”

Carlisle and others said this is another example of how there is so much talk in the country about serving veterans, yet so often little is done.

“We’ve seen a slow change in attitude toward our veterans,” Carlisle said about how the public is often in support of veterans’ services. “Whether that translates to budget decisions, that’s another thing.”

Jim Fototulos, a Greenfield veteran who was stationed with the 8th Army in South Korea from 1958 to 1960, said it’s “disappointing” officials are considering closing the facility, which would leave many in the northern Pioneer Valley on an island with no nearby care.

“I was stunned to see it on Facebook because I thought it was fake news,” Fototulos said. “That would be a disaster.”

Fototulos likened the decision to the state’s plans to undertake massive capital improvements at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 76 veterans died of COVID-19 in spring 2020.

“The gums are good and the teeth have to come out,” Fototulos said.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, was at the State House Thursday, leading an effort to pass an amendment to the Senate’s version of a soldiers’ home oversight bill that would have the state set its own certification standards for the state’s soldiers’ homes. Reached by telephone, she said it was bittersweet to hear news of the possible closure in Northampton while working to strengthen veterans’ health care locally.

“Clearly, I think a closure of services for veterans is the wrong direction, especially now in the wake of the COVID tragedy that inequitably hit underserved or vulnerable communities,” Comerford said. “It makes no sense to me … there is money to maintain services, we should maintain them and assess the best way forward.”

U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren both issued statements on the issue Thursday.

“I am concerned by the potential closure of any VA facility in Massachusetts, and I will be closely monitoring this issue to ensure that the concerns of veterans, local communities, and VA employees are heard and accounted for,” Markey said.

Warren said she was “disappointed that the VA has not been engaging with the community on decisions that will impact veterans and families who deserve full transparency into the realignment of VA facilities, including the VA Medical Center in Leeds, to make sure the necessary steps are taken to improve care of veterans and communicate with affected communities before final decisions are made.”

“This would ensure that our veterans get the quality, community-based care they deserve and strengthen the relationships between the VA and local communities,” she said.


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