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Salisbury Post - Watt Concerned VA Going Ahead With Salisbury Changes

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Location: Salisbury, NC

Salisbury Post - Watt Concerned VA Going Ahead With Salisbury Changes

Congressman Mel Watt has raised concerns that the Hefner VA Medical Center is moving forward with eliminating emergency, surgery and inpatient services despite the Veterans Affairs secretary's promise to have his staff review concerns raised about the plan.

In a letter e-mailed to Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake on Friday, Watt wrote that his office had received telephone calls from constituents complaining that the Hefner VA is referring patients to private health-care facilities for procedures previously performed in-house.

Watt said Monday that his office, as of Friday, had received calls from three or four veterans.

Based on those calls, he continued in his letter, which was also mailed, "I am, therefore, concerned that you may be moving forward with implementing the plan that your letter of Oct. 15, 2008, indicates is being re-evaluated."

When contacted about Watt's concerns, Alison Aikele, press secretary for Veterans Affairs, said no changes had occurred at the Hefner VA and that the medical center has been instructed to cease implementation of any proposed changes.

"Veterans have always been referred out for care that cannot best be provided at the facility," she said. "The course of care for veterans will remain unchanged as it was before the announcement of future plans for the Salisbury facility.

"In response to requests from members of Congress and veterans, the facility has been instructed to stand down on their planning efforts related to the Salisbury facility."

Peake wrote in his Oct. 15 letter to Watt that he had asked his staff to review issues raised by Watt in a Sept. 22 letter and to provide the results of that review no later than Nov. 15. The Veterans Affairs secretary sent a similar letter to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who had raised concerns about the plans in identical letters sent on Oct. 1 and 8.

Aikele said the internal team set up to review the proposed changes would consider all documents related to them.

"The results of the review will be submitted to the USH (undersecretary for health) not later than November 12, 2008," she said. "Upon receipt of the review, the USH will consider their findings and make a recommendation to the Secretary of VA."

Watt said his Oct. 24 letter was sent in an attempt to get assurance that Peake's request for a review of concerns raised about the plans was not just an attempt to "stall out people" to help get Dole re-elected.

"I actually think in my own mind," he said Monday, "that's what's going on. But I can't accuse them of that. But I do need them to respond to the letter I've written asking them what their plans are."

In his most recent letter, Watt asked Peake to respond immediately to his Oct. 16 letter. "My Sept. 22 letter requested a written description of the proposed changes, which I still have not received," he wrote.

"Surely a written plan of what was contemplated would have been in place prior to a public announcement about it," Watt continued. "And surely we could not be expected to evaluate the plan fairly without having a copy of it."

Aikele said the proposed changes were based on a Booz Allen Hamilton study conducted to identify health-care access points for North Carolina and to assess opportunities for sharing agreements with local providers.

In addition to recommending that the Hefner VA contract with a non-VA health system for medical and/or surgical care, the study recommended that the Salisbury VA "provide the highest quality mental health services and become a Center of Excellence."

As for long-term care, the Booz Allen Hamilton study recommended that the Hefner VA "provide the highest quality of long-term care services and become a Center of Excellence."

The Hefner VA developed a strategic plan to meet the recommendations, Aikele said, "and had begun to communicate this plan to their stakeholders."

Watt also questioned in his letter what steps Peake is considering between now and the end of his staff's re-evaluation of the plans.

"Are you suspending any further steps to implement the plan until the re-evaluation is completed, or are you continuing to spend taxpayer money to move forward with a plan that presumably could be substantially changed or even abandoned after the re-evaluation?" he wrote.

If the review is genuine, Watt said Monday, "and not just something to kick the political football down the field, they should suspend any further implementation of it until the re-evaluation is completed."

Despite his concern that the VA plans are being used as a political issue, Watt said veterans haven't brought that up. Those veterans, he said, are "just concerned that they've been able to get services at the VA hospital that they're not going to be able to get anymore."

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