Report calls for VA medical center closure in Northampton

  • U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

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

  • 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. FILE PHOTO

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, part of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. FILE PHOTO

  • 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 is the main location for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2022 3:15:46 PM
Modified: 3/15/2022 3:15:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A report released Monday by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is recommending closure of the VA medical center in Leeds, with services currently offered at the 105-acre campus to either be relocated to other sites in the region or  discontinued.

“There are significant facilities maintenance issues, investment requirements and architectural and engineering challenges at the existing Central Western Massachusetts Veterans Administration Medical Center,” the Asset and Infrastructure Review report states. “The physical layout of the buildings creates inefficiencies that are impacting clinical, administrative and facility support services.”

The recommendations in the report, covering the entire United States and its possessions, would not be carried out for several years, if at all. The VA is advising that the report’s contents mark only the beginning of a lengthy process, to include public hearings by the presidentially appointed Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission and recommendations made to President Joe Biden for further review in 2023.

Built in 1923 on 105 acres, the Leeds medical center does not meet current design standards, the report states. A facility condition assessment shows that deficiencies are estimated at about $121 million, with annual operations and maintenance costs totaling $7.5 million.

Aspects of the report have already been circulating among members of Congress, with concerns being aired publicly, such as at a rally on Staten Island over the weekend, about possible closings and changes at similar sites across the country. Democratic U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern and Richard Neal issued a joint statement last week in support of keeping the Northampton VA Medical Center open.

According to a report Monday in USA Today, only three VA centers in the country are targeted for closure: those in Northampton, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chillicothe, Ohio.

In the announcement published with the report, a requirement of the VA MISSION Act passed by Congress in 2018, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the recommendations came out of the question about what is best for veterans who are served by the federal agency.

“Because that is our number one goal, today and every day. That’s what our Asset and Infrastructure Review recommendations are all about,” McDonough said.

McDonough goes on to note that considerable time has already been spent in seeking input.

“We’ve spent the last several weeks and months communicating about this with VA employees, union partners, state partners, veteran service organizations, Congress and more,” he said. “I’m continuing to consult with our unions, and will do so moving forward, because I so appreciate the strong partnership we have with them.”

Regional changes

The report is broken into market recommendations for the 23 so-called Veterans Integrated Service Networks that encompass all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

For the New England network, a section titled “West Market” that focuses on western Massachusetts and Connecticut, calls for relocating the community living center, residential rehabilitation treatment program and outpatient services currently provided at the Central Western Massachusetts Veterans Administration Medical Center to current or future VA facilities, and discontinuing other services.

“As the population shifted over time, the facility is no longer in the optimal location to serve veterans,” the report states. “The market’s heaviest concentrations of veteran enrollee population reside along a largely urban corridor that runs from Springfield, Massachusetts, down through Hartford, Connecticut, and on to the Greater New Haven, Connecticut, area.”

In fiscal year 2019, the West Market had 90,881 enrollees, but that number is expected to drop by 17% in the next decade. Demand for acute inpatient care is also expected to go down, the report states, while demand for long-term care and outpatient services is projected to increase.

The plan includes moving outpatient services to a new multi-specialty community-based outpatient clinic “in the vicinity of Springfield,” with 48,183 enrollees expected to live within an hour of the site that is chosen: “The newly relocated point of care, located directly adjacent to I-90 and I-91, will improve access for veterans living in Hampden County and the surrounding Western Massachusetts area.”

Also as part of the plan, the residential rehabilitation treatment program and community living center in Leeds would be moved to a multi-specialty community-based outpatient clinic in Newington, Connecticut.

“This relocates the care to sustainable locations, which are closer to larger concentrations of the veteran population within the market,” the report notes.

Urgent care, with 5,543 “encounters” in fiscal year 2019, is also no longer needed, based on the report, since “there are two community urgent care centers within seven minutes of (Leeds), with capacity to absorb the additional workload.”

“The strategy for the market is intended to provide veterans today and in the future with access to high-quality and conveniently located care in modern infrastructure,” the report states.

While the total number of outpatient points of care will decrease nationwide, the idea is that the relocation and expansion of facilities and services will increase veteran access to VA care.

The report can be viewed at www.va.gov/aircommissionreport/.

‘Just recommendations’

Sarah Robinson, a spokeswoman for the VA medical center in Leeds, said any actions based on the report may be several years away from becoming reality, depending also on various stages of action that will follow input from veterans and the public.

“Again, it is important to note that any recommendations to the upcoming AIR Commission are just that: recommendations,” Robinson said.

Once Biden gives a plan to Congress next year, Congress has five days to submit a resolution of disapproval for consideration, which must be passed within 45 days of the plan given by the president. If Congress does not pass a resolution of disapproval, the recommendations as submitted are considered final, and the VA will begin implementation of the approved plan within three years.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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