Government Proposes Closing Gulfport's VA Hospital

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a plan Monday proposing to close seven VA hospitals, including the one in Gulfport. Others will open, and still others will retarget services in a major restructuring of its health care services.

The plan includes major mission changes at 13 facilities, Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Karen Fedele said. The VA wants to close hospitals in Canandaigua, N.Y.; Pittsburgh (Highland Drive); Lexington, Ky. (Leestown); Brecksville, Ohio; Gulfport, Miss.; Livermore, Calif.; and Waco, Texas.

The proposal also would open new hospitals in Las Vegas and in Orlando, Fla.; add centers for the blind in Biloxi, Miss., and Long Beach, Calif.; and place new spinal cord injury centers in Denver; Minneapolis; Syracuse or Albany, N.Y.; and Little Rock, Ark. The proposals are part of a VA restructuring begun June 5, 2002, to shift the agency's focus to outpatient care, place services where they are needed most and save money by eliminating underused and outdated services and facilities.

"This is probably the most comprehensive assessment of VA infrastructure since World War II,'' VA Secretary Anthony Principi said.

A 15-member commission, appointed by Principi, will consider the proposed changes and hold hearings in about a week. After the hearings, the commission will make its recommendations to Principi.

As with military base closings, the secretary must accept or reject the plan as a whole. His decision is expected by the end of the year.

Principi said the proposed restructuring is not only about closing and realigning facilities but also about expansion and modernization. The objective is to meet the needs of veterans for the next 20 years, he said.

"I'm not trying to save money. I'm trying to transform an infrastructure that has been built or acquired over the past 50 years,'' he said.

The restructuring is estimated to cost $4.6 billion over 20 years, with some costs offset by closing hospitals or leasing out unused facilities.

The restructuring has triggered opposition, including legislation sponsored by Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a Democratic presidential candidate, that would give Congress 60 days to review proposed hospital closings. A House version sponsored by Rep. Dennis More, D-Kan., has 118 co-sponsors. Neither bill has been acted on.

Protests have occurred at VA hospitals considered possible targets for closure.

"At a time when many troops are overseas and will need these services when they come home, you want to bolster our veterans' health care, not gut it,'' Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. said Monday.

The approximately 100-page plan is divided into 20 chapters and has hundreds of pages of appendices. The draft plan contains key new concepts like Critical Access Hospitals and greater collaboration with community resources to meet veterans' needs and improve access. The entire plan can be viewed at

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)