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Future of Waco's VA Hospital threatened

Sept. 5, 2003

By Elvia Aguilar, reporter

After 71 years of service, a proposal from the Texas Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may cause the doors of the Waco Veterans Affairs Hospital to close.

A total of seven VA hospitals nationwide may close, and two new others would be opened under the VA Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) proposal, which calls for major restructuring of its health care services.

In July 1999, a General Accounting Office study found the VA was spending $1 million a day on unneeded or unused facilities. The average age of the VA's 5,044 buildings is more than 50 years, and the need to reduce vacant space and unneeded buildings has been the focus of several reports from the office.

The plan also aims to eliminate outdated or underused facilities and shift its focus to outpatient care. The project is expected to cost about $4.6 billion in the next 20 years. The VA proposal would open new hospitals in Las Vegas, Nev. and Orlando, Fla., but it would close hospitals in Waco; Gulfport, Miss.; Lexington, Ky; Pittsburgh, Penn.; Canandaigua, N.Y.; Brecksville, Ohio; and Livermore, Calif.

The CARES commission is holding hearings across the nation in order to listen to feed back from its recommendations. The nearest hearing to Waco will be in Dallas and those in the opposition have stepped in.

U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchinson and John Cornyn, both Republicans, and U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Democrat, asked in a letter for the CARES commission to consider holding a hearing in Waco.

'The veterans of Waco and the community that supports them deserve an opportunity to share with you their thoughts ... and offer a more complete picture of the quality of facilities in Waco,' the letter read.

They also said the Waco hospital is the only one in Texas that provides psychiatric inpatient care for veterans.

If the proposal were implemented, about 17,250 patients and 800 employees in Waco would be displaced. About 250 psychiatric, post-traumatic stress disorder and blind rehabilitation patients likely would be treated in Temple, and some beds at Austin's hospital also would be used for Waco patients.

'I think if the hospital is closed it will have a great economic impact on Waco because many people will lose its services and their jobs,' said Diana Kohler, coordinator of pre-nursing for Baylor. 'The hospital has been used for many years and some of the local veterans probably will have to travel miles to the closest facility if it is closed.'

Crystal Sparks, a McAllen junior, said she signed a petition to stop the hospital from closing.

'I do not live in Waco but my grandfather relocated to be closer to a hospital that would provide him health care services,' Sparks said. 'These people who serve their country are guaranteed health care and it is not fair that after 71 years they will have to travel farther.'

The commission will present its recommendation to VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi toward the end of the year.