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Hospital Closing Will Hurt Many : The plan to cease inpatient activities at the VA Medical Center in Sepulveda will harm tens of thousands of veterans who rely on the facility.

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By its treatment of veterans, America has always supported those who stepped forward to defeat our enemies and allow us to have a country. A disturbing reversal of this tradition is taking place in the decision by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cease inpatient activities at the VA Medical Center in Sepulveda.

The closing will harm tens of thousands of veterans who rely on the hospital. And up to 1,000 employees and salaries will be lost to the San Fernando Valley.

The VA has a history of closing Valley facilities. In 1948, it moved the Birmingham Hospital in Van Nuys to Long Beach. In 1971, it moved the San Fernando hospital to Loma Linda.

Those actions, however, were justified by circumstances. In 1948, the Valley did not boast a population of more than 1 million. In 1971, the San Fernando facility had outlived its mission as a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients.

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When VA Secretary Jesse Brown announced the Sepulveda closure March 14, he cited the cost of restoring or replacing the earthquake-damaged main medical building, estimated at $60 million to $119 million, and said there were 200 empty beds at West Los Angeles, 16 miles from the Sepulveda facility.

He also announced a plan to build a 126,000-square-foot outpatient facility at the Sepulveda site. And he promised every employee a job.

However, except for Building 3, the main medical building, the center’s 24 major structures are in fairly good shape. Three psychiatry wards and a chemical-dependency ward in Buildings 4 and 5 are relatively intact. Four wards survived in the secondary medical facility, Building 2. The ambulatory-care center in Building 10 and the outpatient mental health clinics in Building 25 were operating the day after the quake. Most inpatient services could be restored for a fraction of the supposed cost.

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T Imagine having to drive 16 miles south on Interstate 405 at rush hour in search of inpatient medical care. Picture the added tens of thousands of trips each year, which will worsen the congestion and pollution.

The extra distance will probably prevent many loved ones from visiting hospitalized veterans. And the veteran who falls ill after the outpatient closes for the day had better hope he can make it to West L.A., instead of being admitted to a non-VA hospital. Unless the condition is service-related (and most veterans’ illnesses aren’t), the VA won’t help pay for treatment.

It is wrong to assume that the 200 empty beds at West L.A. will match Sepulveda’s patients. The sub-specialties and other features do not necessarily line up. And logistical problems exist. One doctor in West L.A. told me that his hot, stuffy ward had one functioning toilet for 20 patients and no fire sprinklers. Sepulveda already is having difficulties transferring patients to West L.A. because it’s short of space. So much for excess capacity.

Many of us felt a new outpatient clinic would be a nice addition to Sepulveda’s existing outpatient facilities. We recently learned that the VA plans to destroy these facilities if they are not claimed by homeless advocates under the McKinney Act.

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As to the guarantee of 1,000 jobs at Sepulveda, we hear that the number may be as low as 829, about half the pre-quake work force. The VA recently acknowledged a secret plan to reduce VA employment nationwide by 33,000. It was being formulated when the closure decision was made. To suggest the plan and the closing are unrelated is incredible.

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In my 20-plus years with the VA, I have never seen such a lack of regard for those we are sworn to serve. I have read recently that the Clinton Administration employs the fewest veterans in memory in key jobs. It shows.

It’s time for employees, veterans and members of Congress to make the VA live up to its credo and put veterans first.

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