In a statement, the VA said proposed changes to Long...

In a statement, the VA said proposed changes to Long Island's only veterans hospital, above, are years away from potential implementation. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Northport VA would close its emergency room, shift medical and surgical services to local hospitals and transition its residential rehabilitation program to Southeast Queens under a proposal floated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

The plan, outlined in an 82-page report on the Northeast by the VA's Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, would eliminate most of the care currently provided at the Northport VA Medical Center campus, Long Island's only hospital dedicated to serving the approximately 100,000 veterans living in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The proposal would leave only skeleton services, including inpatient mental health, residential nursing home care and rehabilitation medicine.

Urgent-care services would move to a new outpatient clinic in Commack.

The plan was immediately panned by lawmakers and local veterans groups.

"We are disappointed to learn about plans for the Northport VA secondhand and not having any opportunity for input," said William McKenna Sr., commander of the Northport American Legion. "We still believe that the Northport VA is integral to the care and assistance for our vets and their families."

The commission, which examined VA facilities across the country, said the plan is necessary to meet changing patient demands, while avoiding more than $600 million in needed repairs for the century-old Northport VA facility.

"The Long Island market is facing markedly decreasing enrollment," the report said. "Inpatient service demand is decreasing, while outpatient demand is increasing. There is a need to invest in the ongoing community living center, inpatient mental health, and outpatient service needs of the veteran population on Long Island."

In a statement, the VA said the proposed changes to the Northport campus are years away from potential implementation.

"It is important to note that any recommendations to the upcoming AIR Commission are just that — recommendations," VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said. "Nothing is changing now for veteran access to care or VA employees."

"Any potential changes to the VA’s health care infrastructure may be several years away and are dependent on Commission, Presidential, and Congressional decisions, as well as robust stakeholder engagement and planning," he added. "In the long run, AIR recommendations could impact VHA facilities and staff, but it’s too early to know exactly what or where those impacts might be."

Federal lawmakers objected to the plan, arguing the VA never consulted with them or local veterans groups.

"We are not closing or diminishing the Northport VA," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Newsday. "If anything, it needs more help and dollars to make it better, not to reduce or end it. And I will do everything I can, using my power as majority leader, to keep Northport at full strength."

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes the Northport VA, said the changes make little sense. Northport, he said, is planning to rebuild its emergency room and is spending millions to improve its aging HVAC system.

"I am all for planning for the future," said Suozzi, who is running for governor. "But it's got to be a collaborative effort, not something dictated by Washington, D.C., without local knowledge."

In a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, Suozzi said Long Island veterans are disproportionately older than the national veteran population and require the "convenient and comprehensive care that the Northport VAMC provides."

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), an Army veteran also running for governor, said "cutting off essential services, without convenient and reliable replacements, would be devastating to the people who have been willing to sacrifice everything on behalf of our nation. I will do everything in my power to prevent this from happening."

The VA projects, based on recent data trends, that demand on Long Island for inpatient medical and surgical services will decrease 17.5% through 2029, while requests for inpatient mental health services and long-term care would drop by about 9% and 11%, respectively.

Meanwhile, demand for outpatient services, including primary care, mental health, dental care and rehabilitation therapies, is projected to increase, the report said.

The commission suggests rebuilding Northport as a campus for patients who no longer require daily invasive services but need more intensive care than provided at skilled nursing care facilities.

The changes "will enhance quality and efficiency of health care delivery for the enrollee population and alleviate the need for costly repairs of site conditions and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems," the report said.

Residential rehabilitation treatment would transition to the St. Albans VAMC, located 42 miles to the west in Queens, with programs focused on substance use disorder, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness.

The Northport ER would shutter, with patients directed to NYU Langone in Mineola and Stony Brook University Hospital to the east. Northport, the report said, saw a 17% decline in emergency department visits in 2019.

A VA-run "multi-specialty community-based outpatient clinic, which provides typical outpatient services, including health and wellness visits, would open near Commack," the report said. 

Veteran treatment for spinal cord injuries would move to a Bronx facility, while the closest location with inpatient blindness rehabilitation would be in West Haven, Connecticut, the commission said.

Jim Beecher, past county commander of the Suffolk American Legion, said the plan "makes little sense" and is unlikely to gain support from local veterans.

"Northport has a unique advantage in that it's one-stop shopping," Beecher said. "Everything is there. It's very early on and it's going to be challenged and looked at 100 different ways before anything is done."

Problems at the Northport VA, which cares for about 31,000 veterans annually, have drawn increasing attention since 2016, when failing air conditioning equipment in the Vietnam War-era hospital building forced a four-month suspension of all surgeries, sending veterans to get emergency surgical procedures in Manhattan or the Bronx. 

Northport has also undergone several leadership changes, with past administrators allowing numerous infrastructure projects to remain unfinished, forcing the facility to forfeit repair dollars. A 2017 internal VA investigation concluded that poor oversight of contractors resulted in incomplete projects costing Northport more than $9 million in federal funding.

The plan proposed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission would:

  • Close the Northport VA's emergency room, sending patients to local hospitals, including Stony Brook and NYU Langone.
  • Move all residential rehabilitation treatment at Northport to the St. Albans VA Medical Center 42 miles to the west.
  • Transition outpatient and urgent care services from Northport to a new facility in Commack.
  • The Northport VA would continue to provide inpatient mental health, residential nursing home care and rehabilitation medicine services.

Source: VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission

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