Editorial: A reprieve for vets’ care

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 12, 2008

Three cheers for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs decision regarding the Hefner V.A. Medical Center. As announced on Thursday, the V.A. will proceed with expanding services in Charlotte and Winston-Salem and delay changing the level of care offered in Salisbury until 2013, when the department will revisit the issue. That makes sense.
The decision relieves local veterans of the feeling that their needs didn’t matter and their protests were falling on deaf ears at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The department heard them loud and clear, and the nation is not turning its back on them.
The VA will build full-service veterans’ health-care centers in Winston-Salem and Charlotte. That in itself is not an objectionable idea; those metropolitan areas have plenty of veterans. But the notion of cutting back services at the Hefner VA in Salisbury at the same time ó basically, expanding service in other areas at the Salisbury center’s expense ó sent up howls of protest. While those centers would provide primary care, Salisbury would specialize in mental health and long-term care. Granted, the VA medical center in Salisbury has considerable history and expertise in those areas, but taking away emergency services and inpatient care would have been a big blow to area veterans. They’d have to travel elsewhere for inpatient care, and if an emergency arose, they’d have to go to Rowan Regional’s emergency department under a contractual agreement. That seemed to distress them them the most. It felt as though the VA was abandoning them.
The VA’s new wait-and-see attitude toward cutting back those services at Hefner VA Medical Center comes at a crucial time. A lot can happen in five years, especially with the nation still fighting wars on two fronts. The two new centers may relieve pressure at the Hefner VA but not really eliminate the need for primary care here, too. As many have pointed out, the VA has put a lot of money into new surgery suites and other improvements in Salisbury which would become the proverbial bridge to nowhere if the VA opted to divert those services to other centers.
Veterans who say they’re not giving up the fight are smart, though, because in a way Thursday’s announcement is just a rewording of the previous announcement. The threat has not been removed, just phased in with more time for reconsideration.
It will be interesting to see how the changing of the guard in Washington affects this process. President-elect Barack Obama has named retired Gen. Eric Shinseki as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a blunt-speaking, no-nonsense kind of guy, according to reports. Maybe that will bring more straight talk from people down the line in Veterans Affairs. The nation’s 23 million veterans would appreciate that. They have a comrade in arms in the leadership position. Surely he will be more attuned to their needs.