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Northport VA operating rooms functioning again after repairs

Surgical units at the Northport VA medical center

Surgical units at the Northport VA medical center were set to resume Monday, June 6, 2016 after repairs to a faulty air conditioning system, but other maintenance issues still exist at the hospital. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Operating rooms at Northport’s Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center started handling patients Monday, nearly four months after first shutting down when air-conditioning vents that cool the hospital’s surgical suite began spewing metal contaminants.

Workers at the medical center — the only veterans hospital on Long Island — completed the installation and testing of custom-made filters late last week. Officials said the filters will allow the air-conditioning to function normally and surgeries to resume at full schedule.

The completed repairs represent a step toward normalcy for the 88-year-old medical center, which continues to battle maintenance problems that seem to crop up as fast as old ones are fixed.

Just last week, equipment needed to cool an area where radiological equipment is housed failed.

That equipment failure forced the hospital to curtail nonemergency CT scans at the medical center’s main hospital building, erected in 1972 and now older than many of the physicians and nurses who work there. Northport officials said Friday that a replacement part would be installed in time to resume normal scheduling Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the medical center still has not repaired the 503-bed hospital’s main air-conditioning system that shut down in March 2015 when an improper mixture of safety chemicals caused a cooling tower to fail.

Since then, the medical center has relied on temporary air-conditioning units parked outside the main hospital — at a summertime rental cost of $120,000 per month.

Hospital Director Philip Moschita has repeatedly said that failing equipment is normal in older medical centers. Northport’s $320 million budget, which at 15 percent more than five years ago, has grown slower than the average increase for medical costs nationally, is not the cause, he said.

The medical center is critical to Long Island’s estimated 130,000 veterans, many of whom need care for war wounds, combat-related psychological stress, or geriatric maladies.

But age-related maintenance issues appear to be challenging VA medical facilities all across the country. Experts say the problem may get worse, as the VA struggles with Congress to secure larger budget outlays even as the giant health agency has been accused of mismanaging the money it already has.

Last September, a report by the McKinsey consulting group concluded that the VA “is expected to face accelerating and likely unfunded capital requirements driven by maintenance to aging infrastructure . . . ”

The report’s Executive Summary went on to say “ . . . even if VA is able to meet the significant challenge of achieving best practice performance in capital management, VA would still likely experience a significant capital funding gap that will require strategic changes in operations and additional funding to close the gap.”

Concerns that growing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans were taxing the VA’s ability to keep up with maintenance date back at least to 2005, when William A. Boettcher, then-national commander of AMVETS, an advocacy group for veterans, said he was alarmed by reports VA officials were raiding equipment and maintenance budgets to replenish depleted health care accounts.

Two Long Island members of Congress have taken differing views of Northport’s problems, although neither has been critical of how administrators there have handled maintenance.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) has said congressional cost cutting has been too aggressive in an era when returning war veterans are burdening VA health facilities.

“We have a Republican majority that doesn’t adequately fund the VA,” Israel said.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said Congress last year supplied the VA with all the money it asked for, and said poor money management by VA officials in Washington is ultimately responsible for maintenance shortfalls at Northport.

“I am not aware of any hospital in the system, including Northport, that is on a positive trajectory in terms of capital construction needs,” Zeldin said.

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