With the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs proposing a dramatic shift in where thousands of veterans in Massachusetts receive medical care, one state senator, a veteran himself, is threatening to call a public hearing if the Biden administration doesn’t back off its plan.
Sen. John Velis, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, called the VA’s plan to realign medical services in Massachusetts a “slap in the face.” The Westfield Democrat focused on the recommendation that the medical center in Northampton be closed, and that services for the 24,000 veterans who receive care there be shifted to clinics in Springfield and Newington, Conn.
“Transportation is already a challenge for our Veterans, and it is unconscionable that we would consider pushing them further away from the medical care that they so desperately depend on,” Velis said in a statement.
While the recommendations published Monday are just the starting point in the process, Velis said if the plan continues to move forward, he intends to call a public hearing and “do everything in my power to prevent this closure.”
The VA said its recommendations were intended to better align services in a more cost-effective manner that accounts for declining numbers of veterans seeking care in federal medical centers and community clinics, and the deteriorating state of some of its aging facilities, some of which were built nearly a century ago.
The plan calls for a new medical center to be built in the “vicinity” of Bedford to replace the Bedford VA, which was built in 1928 and requires $345.2 million in facility upgrades.
Services in Jamaica Plain would be scaled back, with veterans redirected based on needs to facilities in Bedford, Brockton and West Roxbury, and community clinics in Lynn and Gloucester would be closed, with services replaced by a new facility in Salem.
The Quincy VA clinic also would be closed under the proposal, with patients redirected to South Weymouth for care.
In Massachusetts’ eastern market stretching from the coast to Worcester County and including Rhode Island, the VA said, it had 132,367 patient enrollees in 2019, and projected a 14 percent drop by fiscal year 2029.
Demand for inpatient medical and surgical services is projected to decrease by 11.3 percent in that market, according to the federal government, and demand for inpatient mental health services is projected to decrease by 15.7 percent from fiscal years 2019 to 2029.
An even greater enrollment decline is forecast for the market covering the four westernmost counties in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the 90,881 patients enrolled in 2019 are projected to decline in number by 17 percent by 2029, with demand for inpatient medical and surgical services decreasing 8.8 percent and demand for inpatient mental health services decreasing by 12.9 percent by fiscal year 2029.
The VA said its recommendations were “designed to ensure that Veterans today and for generations to come have access to the high-quality care they have earned.”
But, Lynn’s director of veteran services, Michael Sweeney told The Item on Tuesday that the recommendations would make accessing care more difficult for veterans in that North Shore city.
“They say the multi-clinic recommendation would offer more expanded services for veterans,” Sweeney told the newspaper. “Why can’t we do that in Lynn?”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in a statement, said she intended to work with Congress and the Biden administration to make sure any realignment doesn’t make it harder for veterans to access care.
“Veterans deserve quality health care at VA facilities in their communities, and I’m deeply concerned that the VA has not been thoroughly engaging and communicating with veterans in Massachusetts about decisions impacting their health and their families,” Warren said.
With respect to the Central Western Massachusetts VA clinic in Northampton, the federal agency said the nearly 100-year old facility was “no longer in the optimal location” with the heaviest concentration of veterans seeking care living along the “largely urban corridor that runs from Springfield, Massachusetts, down through Hartford, Connecticut, and on to the Greater New Haven, Connecticut, area.”
The VA said its recommendations would ensure that the number of patients within a 30-minute drive of primary care available through VA facilities and community providers will be maintained.
But, Velis said he believes that many veterans in his district and region of the state could be forced to drive an hour or more to Connecticut to get the care they rely on.
“I do not believe that our already overstrained community providers have the bandwidth to make up these services, especially the critical behavioral health services provided at Northampton,” Velis said.
Velis co-chairs the Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs with Rep. Paul McMurtry of Dedham. Gov. Charlie Baker’s office did not respond to a request for comment.