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Schumer: VA should make medical center in Northport top priority

Sen. Chuck Schumer is joined by local officials

Sen. Chuck Schumer is joined by local officials and veterans Monday at the American Legion Post 1033 in Elmont. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Sen. Chuck Schumer said Monday that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs should give top priority to Long Island’s only veterans hospital as it doles out hiring and repair funds from an $86.5 billion VA spending plan approved by Congress last week.

Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Northport, has 175 vacancies in key positions, including doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists and mental health workers. He said failing cooling units at the nine-decade-old facility has forced surgeries to be canceled and has otherwise curtailed services used by many of Long Island’s roughly 130,000 veterans.

“We don’t want a veteran to call up and say I need health care and they say, ‘Come back in January,’ ” Schumer said during a news conference at the Elmont American Legion Post.

Schumer said Northport should be placed “at the front of the line” among the nation’s 172 VA medical centers competing for additional staffing and repair dollars because Long Island has among the highest concentrations of veterans in the nation. Northport is the only VA hospital in the 120 miles between Montauk and downtown Manhattan.

The 175 employee vacancies represent nearly 10 percent of Northport’s 1,800-member staff.

Earlier this year, a broken air conditioner motor forced Northport to close its surgical suite for almost a week, necessitating the rescheduling of 18 surgeries, according to Schumer’s office. In January, a failing furnace forced the closure of the Beacon Northport Veterans Residence, a homeless shelter operated by a nonprofit at the medical center.

In response to a request for comment from Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, Northport spokesman Levi Spellman said a permanent fix to the surgical suite’s air conditioning unit is not expected before next April, but that the facility is making progress toward reducing a backlog of infrastructure projects. Spellman said staff vacancies alone are not a valid yardstick when measuring a hospital’s ability to deliver quality care.

Because of editing errors, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified Wilkie as acting secretary and stated a spokesman for Wilkie did not respond to a request for comment. The spokesman for Wilkie had forwarded the request to the spokesman at the Northport hospital.

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