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Interim VA Medical Center director exploring ways to cut operating costs at facility

Interim Northport VA Medical Center Director Cathy Cruise

Interim Northport VA Medical Center Director Cathy Cruise said she is considering closing as many as 10 or more buildings at the campus to pare maintenance costs that have sapped Northport's operating budget. Credit: Newsday/Martin Evans

Interim Northport VA Medical Center Director Cathy Cruise on Wednesday assured employees and veteran organizations that she is exploring ways to cut costs at the giant facility as a way of reprogramming its budget toward improved patient services, while scrupulously avoiding staff cuts.

During a daylong series of “town hall” meetings that attracted hundreds of the facility’s 1,800 employees, veteran leaders, and aides to area members of Congress, Cruise said she has already begun consolidating Northport’s administrators into offices at the main hospital building as a way of boosting staff efficiency.

Cruise also said she is considering closing as many as 10 or more buildings at the campus, to pare maintenance costs that have sapped Northport’s operating budget.

The facility has more than 70 buildings on its 268-acre campus, many of them dating to when Northport was designed in the 1920s, and which have become costly to maintain and to upgrade to conform with modern medical practices.

But she said she has not settled on any single way forward and urged employees and veterans groups to offer suggestions for how Northport should change.

“We don’t want to do it alone,” she said at one of the meetings. “You know the facility, and I trust your insight.”

“We are not eliminating any programs, we are not eliminating any staff,” she said. “We want to put that on the table.”

Northport’s administrators are grappling with the challenge of modernizing Long Island’s only veterans hospital, even as it faces the twin difficulties of a declining patient load — which means it gets fewer per-patient federal dollars — and a patient population that is older and has more complex medical challenges.

About 10 percent of the medical facility’s 1.4 million square feet of space is vacant, including two large decaying buildings immediately opposite the hospital’s front entrance.

Concerns about the daunting costs of keeping Northport in good repair have stretched all the way to Washington, D.C. Two years ago, the then-chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs wrote a letter to Northport administrators expressing his concerns regarding “deteriorating facilities at Northport VAMC,” referencing such issues as deteriorated roofs and mold growth in several buildings.

The letter from Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said Northport faced a “staggering” backlog of maintenance projects. Cruise’s presentation included a $449 million estimate for renovating all of the buildings at the facility.

That stoked concerns among many Long Island veterans that small-government Republicans might seek to privatize an increasing share of VA medicine, and to downsize Northport or close it altogether.

Cruise said having the hospital operate from fewer buildings would allow administrators to repurpose funds Northport currently expends to keep those buildings running and use them instead to maintaining services and staffing levels.

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