The CARES commission just started a three month fact finding mission. It's going all over the country, meeting with VA directors and VA patients. Tuesday, the CARES commission heard why the VA thinks it's time to close the 92 acre Gulfport medical center.
For nearly an hour, regional VA directors had a chance to explain why they thought combining the Biloxi and Gulfport medical centers was a good idea. Dr. Robert Lynch headed up the group. "Veterans will be more richly served," he told commissioners. "And we won't have cost anyone, or there won't be a net loss of jobs."
The VA leaders presented a three prong consolidation plan. They would collaborate some of their programs with Keesler Medical Center. They would convert some of Biloxi's outpatient facilities into inpatient car center. And if they had to, they would build new hospital beds.
"Veterans won't lose services," Dr. Lynch said. "There will be more services here in the Biloxi/Gulfport area than there currently are."
Julie Catellier oversees the two South Mississippi VAs. She told the CARES panel that running a single VA campus would be more cost effective than having two campuses eight miles apart. She said, "We conservatively estimate that we would recover seven million dollars per year in unduplicated costs."
Korean and Vietnam war veteran Ernest Brant attended the hearing. The VA invited his purple heart group to hear the presentation. He supported the consolidation plan. "I think it's great," the Biloxi man said. "It's far more extensive than I ever realized it would be. Far more."
Charles Battaglia is chairman of the CARES commission. "Our criteria is going to be are we serving the veterans better by doing this thing. And is it more cost effective as well," he said. "But serving the veterans is the highest priority out of this entire matter here."
The CARES commission will only make a recommendation. The final decision about closing the Gulfport VA is up to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. His decision should be announced in December.
So what happens to the 92 acre Gulfport VA property if the medical center closes? The VA's plan is to maintain ownership of the Highway 90 location. At Tuesday's hearing, directors said they'd like to lease the property to an organization that is philosophically aligned with the VA's mission. A college medical center, a veterans' assisted living complex, and a retirement home were all mentioned as possible tenants.