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Long Islands veterans deserve a better VA hospital

The Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, photographed April

The Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, photographed April 12, 2017. Credit: Chuck Fadely

For decades, the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center was considered a jewel of the federal system for its service to Long Island’s 130,000 veterans, one of the largest concentrations in the United States. But in this past year, the bad news from the facility has been plentiful.

It started last January when the center’s shelter for homeless veterans had to close for repairs to a heating system stressed by extreme cold. That closure caused Beacon House to lose its certificate of occupancy, a grandfathered status that let it operate outside of current building standards. Before veterans can again stay in the facility, asbestos abatement and extensive electrical work must be completed.

This means the homeless veterans the 44-bed Beacon House served, all of whom have been placed in other shelters, now often have great difficulty accessing medical and mental health care services at Northport. These treatments are often for ailments that are underlying causes of their homelessness. Beacon House will be closed for several months more, even on the expedited schedule adopted amid pressure from local members of Congress.

But the closed shelter is far from the only serious problem at the Northport VA. Operating suites have been closed repeatedly by faulty air-conditioning units. Morale is low among workers, who reported broken medical equipment, hazardous conditions, understaffing, filthy facilities, unresponsive management, and other challenges in an anonymous survey commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs. A federal assessment concluded it would take $279 million to get Northport up to speed, and officials say many of the mounting problems are due to mismanagement at the facility that left millions of dollars in available maintenance money unspent in past years.

Problems aren’t exclusive to Long Island. The VA overall is in crisis. But military service is a contract between a person and a nation. These veterans lived up to their end of the deal. On Long Island and across the nation, the VA must do the same.