Rep. Watt 'hit cold' by VA changes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., sent a letter Wednesday to Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake asking for justifications behind changes planned for the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury.
Watt told Peake he was “deeply disappointed that this decision, which will affect many of my constituents, was made without any notice to or consultation with my office.”
The VA announced Friday the Salisbury hospital would be changed to a community-based outpatient clinic and “Center for Excellence for Mental Health and Long-Term Care.”
Inpatient care and emergency room services will be provided to veterans through “contracts with community partners,” the VA said, meaning they probably will be sent to local hospitals such as Rowan Regional Medical Center.
The changes also will affect employees and the overall mission of the Salisbury medical center. Meanwhile, the VA plans to expand its clinics in Charlotte and Winston-Salem into “health-care centers,” providing more services to veterans.
Employees at the Hefner VA Medical Center, the county’s fourth-largest employer with a workforce of about 1,700, heard of the changes for the first time Friday.
“We were hit cold with this,” Watt said of his own office, “and are being called upon to explain and comment on changes, the specifics and rationales for which we had no prior knowledge about and still have not been briefed.”
He asked Peake to provide a written description of and justification for the changes and said he welcomed an opportunity to discuss the matter with someone from the VA.
While he was pleased with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plans to expand access to care in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, Watt said he also was concerned about three things:
– The impact the changes could have on the quality and quantity of services at the Hefner VA, “which for years has been a full-service hospital and health center for veterans and in recent months has made substantial upgrades to serve this purpose better.”
– The impact the changes will have on the Hefner VA’s workforce.
– Whether veterans, if they are sent to non-VA facilities, will be subjected to long waits before they receive care.
“Discussions with non-VA hospitals throughout the district suggest that no arrangements have been made with them to serve veterans effectively,” Watt said.
Hefner VA Medical Center Director Carolyn Adams acknowledged last week in a formal notification to American Federation of Government Employees Local 1738 that employees assigned to inpatient services would be affected and a realignment of staff will occur.
She said management would work with the union to minimize the impact on employees as a whole and develop a plan for a transition.
A meeting of the Rowan County Veterans Council has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the J.C. Price American Legion Post on Old Wilkesboro Road to discuss the VA Medical Center changes.