Officials at Long Island’s only veterans hospital kept local members of Congress in the dark over problems that have closed the facility’s operating rooms for more than two months, forcing scores of surgery patients to seek care in centers as far away as the Bronx and Manhattan.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he only learned of the closure when news accounts of problems at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport emerged last week.
A spokesman for Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), a fellow committee member, said she had not been informed of the closure either. A spokesman for Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), who represents the district where the hospital is located, said he too was not aware of the closure.
“I’m greatly concerned by the fact that, as a result of poor communication between the VA and Congress and the public, it took a newspaper story to uncover what should have been uncovered by the VA upfront as soon as it happened,” said Zeldin, whose committee oversees the VA.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said Northport officials failed local veterans by not being open about problems there, especially as medical delays and bungled records at VA facilities nationwide has eroded confidence in the giant federal agency.
“We’re not talking athlete’s foot here. This is serious,” King said. “If a veterans hospital can’t provide surgery, that is significant.”
Northport officials said they shut the five-room surgical unit at the 502-bed medical center on Feb. 17, after air conditioning ducts began spitting metal particles near operating tables.
They reopened some of the surgical rooms after cleaning the air ducts, but shut the unit again in April, after the tiny specs — metal oxide particles the size of grains of sand — resumed falling in the sterile rooms.
Hospital officials hope to reopen the unit in early June, after fitting the unit’s air conditioning system with custom filters they think will prevent the stray particles from entering the rooms and potentially finding their way into surgical patients — posing a risk of infection.
On Tuesday, Zeldin emailed a statement to the news media, saying: “It is inexcusable that the Department of Veterans Affairs has not allocated the necessary resources to keep open the Operating Rooms at the Northport VA.”
But Northport’s director, Philip Moschitta, said the air conditioning failure was unforeseeable, and that the surgical unit’s closure was not the result of a shortage of maintenance dollars.
“That was purely a mechanical systems failure,” Moschitta said. “It was not a financial matter.”
The medical center, first built in 1928, has several maintenance issues, officials have said.
Heavy rains flood a system of pedestrian tunnels that connect the center’s administrative buildings to the main hospital, which was built in 1972. Moschitta acknowledged that several buildings need new roofs. Potholes mark the center’s roads, and buildings that have outlived their usefulness stand vacant. A cooling tower failed last year, forcing administrators to rent portable units that in the warm months cost $120,000 per month.
The shuttered operating rooms each year handle 1,200 to 1,500 of the types of surgical procedures that the closure has halted. Since February, 117 veterans have had to reschedule surgeries, according to hospital officials. Of those, 69 were treated at other facilities, and 48 chose to postpone surgery until Northport becomes available again.
But King and Zeldin seemed particularly upset by what they called a failure by Northport officials to tell the public about the surgery suite’s closure, which had forced doctors to reschedule or send about 120 surgical patients elsewhere.
“There should have been a public announcement so veterans would know what is going on,” King said. “Now it seems like they are hiding something. People like myself defend Northport, but they really dropped the ball on this one.”