VA hospital escapes big changes

May 19, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Clinic, housing still possible

S. HUNTINGTON AVE.—The Jamaica Plain Veterans Affairs Medical Center escaped extreme changes—either closure or major expansion—as the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) last week wrapped up a six-year review of the region’s veterans hospitals.

“Finally!” US Rep. Mike Capuano, an advocate of leaving the JP hospital alone, told the Gazette. “I’m happy with the answer, but I’m also happy [the review is] done.”

But significant changes could still be coming to the JP hospital at 150 S. Huntington Ave. The possibilities include moving a 4,000-patient downtown clinic into the JP hospital, and redeveloping one building as housing or other uses.

In 2002, the VA began CARES, a nationwide review of medical facilities. Locally, that basically meant considering consolidation of the Boston region’s four major VA medical centers, including hospitals in West Roxbury, Brockton and Bedford.

An early proposal was merging all four hospitals into a new, giant center somewhere else. In 2006, the VA rejected that option and proposed smaller mergers. That included closing the West Roxbury hospital, moving its services to JP and turning the West Roxbury site into a shopping mall and condo development. Closing the JP hospital was also still a theoretical option.

On May 5, the VA announced it would not merge any of the medical centers.

“The potential benefits to be gained from any consolidation do not justify the disruption to veterans or to our first-class health care system in Boston,” VA Secretary James Peake said in a press statement. Peake is the third person to hold the VA secretary job since the CARES review began.

The idea of closing VA hospitals in a time of war was universally condemned by veterans groups and all area elected officials. Considering the years of criticism, the decision was no surprise.

“To consolidate the way they were talking about was cutting services [to] veterans,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, who originally alerted JP residents to the CARES process, which was not publicized locally by the VA.

“Unfortunately, both of those facilities are getting new customers every day,” said City Councilor John Tobin, who represents both JP and West Roxbury. He described himself as “elated” with the VA decision not to merge the hospitals.

Capuano said he thought the review was worthwhile in retrospect, but was a problem because it dragged on without a clear timeframe. It affected service to veterans, he said, because it was hard to plan the right services when everything was theoretically on the chopping block.

“Who wants to put ‘x’ millions of dollars into a building you might shut down a week later?” Capuano said.
Other changes

While the CARES review left the JP hospital untouched, other changes are still possible.

The VA has long proposed closing its Causeway Street clinic downtown and moving its facilities—including a methadone drug-treatment unit—to the JP hospital. That possibility drew the concern of neighbors when a local meeting organized by Sánchez brought it to light a few years ago.

In a 2006 CARES report, relocation of the clinic to the JP hospital was described as “planned” with “designs underway.” It was unclear where that information came from and what the timeline would be.

Closing any clinics during the CARES process was prohibited under a federal law that US Sen. Edward Kennedy co-authored. Kennedy, US Sen. John Kerry and the entire Massachusetts Congressional delegation expressed outrage at the 2006 report’s claims.

At that time, an American Legion official told the Gazette that many Causeway Street services had effectively already moved to JP because of clinic downsizing.

In any case, it appears the VA is now free to at least propose moving the clinic’s services to JP once again. That could mean more traffic and other impacts.

Capuano opposes the move and told the Gazette he thinks it is unlikely to happen in the long run. But, he added, “I think that’s going to be an ongoing issue…I don’t think that will go off the table.”

Small-scale redevelopment on VA hospital land is also still possible as the VA seeks to raise funds.

“Opportunities may be available for housing homeless veterans, assisted living facilities, geriatric continuing care communities and affordable housing for veterans through [the] VA’s Enhance-Use Leasing program,” Peake said in a press statement.

Under the Enhanced-Use Leasing program, the VA gives long-term leases to developers in exchange for a cut of the revenue. Peake’s suggestions aside, the VA has authorized a wide variety of development under the program, including a giant parking garage proposed in St. Louis.

Small-scale redevelopment at the JP hospital was proposed as part of the CARES review. A 2006 study suggested the hospital’s Building 9—an administrative and research facility behind Evergreen Street—could be sold off, possibily into 15 condos in five new buildings.

Any of these ideas might also change after a new US president replaces George W. Bush early next year.