Senators oppose VA medical centers’ merger


S. HUNTINGTON AVE.—US Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry are opposing the federal Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) idea of merging the Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury VA medical centers.

The entire Massachusetts congressional delegation met with VA Secretary R. James Nicholson on Jan. 18 to express concerns about the merger idea, which includes a similar move with Bedford and Brockton hospitals. A VA decision on any moves is expected sometime this spring.

“I will not support any proposal that will reduce the health care options available to veterans in Massachusetts,” Kennedy said in a press statement. “Consolidating the services provided at Bedford, Brockton, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury would cause a significant disruption in services and make it much more difficult for a larger number of veterans to obtain care.”

“This is not the time, nor the place, to be closing any VA medical facilities,” Kerry said in a press statement, noting the ongoing Iraq War.

US Rep. Mike Capuano echoed his position that he’s open to considering reconfiguration ideas, but that the current level of care cannot be reduced.

Speaking for the delegation, US Rep. Stephen Lynch said, “We continue to be disappointed by the VA’s push to consolidate our VA facilities and cut back on services for our veterans.”

The merger talk is part of the VA’s CARES program, a nationwide review of facilities and services.

Last summer, a CARES report recommended closing the West Roxbury hospital and merging all of its services into the JP hospital at 150 S. Huntington Ave. It also outlined controversial plans to relocate a 4,000-patient downtown clinic, including a methadone drug-treatment unit, to the JP hospital.

Under the proposal, the West Roxbury site would become a shopping mall and condo development. It was also suggested that part of the JP site behind Evergreen Street could be developed into condos.

Closing the JP hospital and merging into West Roxbury was also suggested, but not recommended.

The delegation has expressed doubts about mergers before, but this is the first time Kennedy and Kerry have directly opposed them.

“The senator felt Secretary Nicholson was receptive and his concerns were heard,” said Kennedy spokesperson Melissa Wagoner in a Gazette interview.

Nicholson previously rejected an idea of closing all four Massachusetts VA hospitals and replacing them with a new mega-hospital on a new site.

The merger idea was a recommendation by consultants. The VA has been reviewing the idea since then. The VA has held some public meetings, but they were not held or advertised locally.

There is no solid schedule for a final decision. It is unclear whether any changes will happen, especially with President George W. Bush’s administration heading for an end in 2009.

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