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Report: VA to propose closing medical center in Leeds

The VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Northampton, also known as the Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in 2018.
Don Treeger
The Republican / MassLive.com
The VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Northampton, also known as the Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in 2018.

The primary medical care site for veterans in western Massachusetts would be closed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs under a proposed plan that’s expected to be released next week.

The news, first reported by MassLive’s Benjamin Kail, could impact veterans getting care at the Edward P. Boland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, elsewhere in western Massachusetts and in Connecticut.

Kail explained why the VA said it was recommending the changes.

Benjamin Kail, MassLive: The VA has been involved in a basically digging into their assets across the country for the last couple of years and basically looking at how they can best serve veterans and an evolving veteran population as health care changes over the years. And they've got a bunch of old facilities on their hands.

The Northampton facility was built in 1923. Most of the VA facilities in Massachusetts and New England are several decades old. According to VA estimates, they say that in order to get that facility to modern standards, it would cost upwards of $121 million. They also say that there's declining outpatient enrollment overall. So they say that in the long run, it's not sustainable to keep that facility running long-term.

"I've been watching them spend tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure up in Leeds. So, to me, why would you do that and then turn around and talk about closing it? It makes no sense."
Steven Connor, Central Hampshire Veterans' Services

That said, they took pains to make clear that these recommendations that are coming out in a report on Monday are just that. They're just recommendations. It's going to be subject to public hearings, meetings with labor groups, veterans, lawmakers, and they're subject to change, and it would take years before any of them are implemented.

Carrie Saldo, NEPM: But the proposed plan isn't all about reduction. Springfield, Fitchburg, Pittsfield and portions of Connecticut who could potentially see new modernized buildings and expanded services. And while those changes would likely be welcomed, Ryan Lilly, director of the VA New England Health Care System Network, had some words of caution related to that. So what did Lilly say to employees?

Yeah, Lilly ... basically compared the recommendations to a jigsaw puzzle and said that in order for VA to get fully on board with the closure of the Northampton site — and potentially other sites throughout the country really — another set of factors have to come into play. And that means a Springfield community-based outpatient clinic would need to be beefed-up, expanded. They would need a larger building. They want one that is closer to I-90 and I-91 and more accessible to public transit.

They would also basically need a new facility that they recommended as part of this report, a new nursing home facility in the Newington facility, which is down slightly south of Hartford. It's about an hour away from the Northampton site, and it's about a 45-minute drive from the West Haven, Connecticut, site, which they also recommended moving [the] nursing home and residential rehabilitation treatment program up there to Newington.

"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."
U.S. Reps. Richard Neal and Jim McGovern

They say that they can serve the most amount of veterans by doing some of these shufflings. And they also said that they were going to — at the same time — even if they're even if they're making some recommendations to reduce, they're also going to expand a bunch of services: in Pittsfield, expanded home based primary care; in Fitchburg, expanded specialty care services; and then also some new graduate medical education slots in Worcester and based at UMass in Springfield,

Recognizing again that this is just a proposal, what reaction have you heard so far?

So the initial tipster was somebody who described it as as a blow to veterans. I would say that VA is taking pains to make clear that these are just recommendations and it's a years-long process. Congressman Jim McGovern — it's in his district — he long fought for the updated community-based outpatient clinic in Worcester in partnership with UMass Medical School. His office said that they received ... a heads-up that the recommendations were coming out to close the Northampton site. He said that he would strongly oppose that and that he would fight that and keep the conversation going with V.A.

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