Northport VA hospital. June 6, 2016.

Northport VA hospital. June 6, 2016. Credit: Johnny Milano

Wantagh disabled veteran Chris Peterkin has utilized the Northport VA Hospital since the 1980s for everything from dental visits and shrapnel removal to treatment of bladder cancer and the effects of Agent Orange.

The medical staff at Long Island's only hospital dedicated to serving roughly 100,000 veterans in Nassau and Suffolk counties are like family, he said.

But on Wednesday, Peterkin woke to reports that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is considering shuttering the majority of services at Northport, citing changing needs of the region's veterans and an estimated $610 million in repairs necessary on the Suffolk campus.

Peterkin, a retired Marine and commander of the Nassau County Council of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he is "appalled" by the proposal.

"I have doctors who care about patients," he said. "They don't care about money. They care about patients and especially veterans. For me it would be like starting all over."

Veterans from across the region Wednesday panned the proposal, which was outlined in a report by the VA's Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission. 

The plan calls for transitioning Northport's residential rehabilitation program, which includes treatment of substance abuse disorder, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness, to the St. Albans VA Medical Center in Queens, 42 miles away.

Pasquale Alesia of Valley Stream served in the Army and then spent 27 years in the Army National Guard, retiring as a brigadier general. He said Suffolk residents should not have to travel to Southeast Queens for treatment.

"Are they going to travel 45 minutes," asked Alesia, the commander of the American Legion of Nassau County. "Can they do that? Do they need assistance? It presents other problems."

The Northport ER would also close its doors, with patients directed to NYU Langone in Mineola or Stony Brook University Hospital while some urgent care services would shift to a new outpatient clinic in Commack.

The proposal would leave bare-bones services at Northport, including inpatient mental health, residential nursing home care and rehabilitation medicine.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes Northport, said there will be at least a year of meetings and public comment before any of the VA's plans are approved.

Andrew Booth, of Levittown, a retired Marine and president of the United Veterans Organization in Garden City, said veterans did not seek out a radical change to their care.

"I've had the same doctors for more than 10 years and I'm comfortable with them," said Booth, who visits Northport twice a month. "You're asking me to go someplace else and start all over again? We didn't ask for this."

Seaford resident Christine McKenna said closing the PTSD wing at Northport is "difficult to understand." Her husband, James, suffers PTSD from his time as a Marine in the Iraq Gulf War in the early 1990s. He's battled alcoholism, depression and suicidal tendencies.

She said her husband lived for years at the Northport VA, receiving essential care and a black labrador, Robbie, who still serves as his anchor during bouts of anxiety.

"To see [the unit] gone would be egregious for the veterans here on the island," she said. "Where are we going to go? The Bronx? The boroughs? It just doesn't make sense."

The facility is a "shell of its former self," said Morris Miller, of Massapequa, a veterans advocate who serves on five committees at the Northport VA. The pool, for example, has been closed for more than 15 years, eliminating aquatic therapy — and morale among staff is low, Miller said.

But Miller, an Army veteran who saw combat in Vietnam, said veterans want to see Northport built up, not taken apart.

"They care more for us more than any private doctor or hospital or clinic," Miller said. " … We want the VA strengthened. We still need and deserve and are entitled to have Northport at maximum strength and not to shift us off here, there and everywhere else."

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