Waco VA not targeted for closure, congressman says

(File photo)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) Despite a warning from a former congressman who fought to save the Doris Miller VA Medical Center more than 15 years ago, Waco’s current U.S. representative says he’s unaware of any effort to close down the campus.

“In my opinion, the Waco community needs to be prepared to defend the Waco VA as it did when Kay Bailey (Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) and I were fighting that fight years ago,” former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, told KWTX earlier this week.

But the congressman who now represents Waco, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores-R, Bryan, says the facility has not been targeted for closure.

"We are not aware of any current effort to try to close down the Doris Miller campus in Waco."

"There is a heightened level of sensitivity because of it was targeted for closure in the last decade and because of some activities that transferred away from the campus even though there were other activities were transferred to the campus," adds Flores.

The Central Texas Veterans Health Care System based in Temple, which oversees the Waco facility and the Olin E. Teague VA Medical Center in Temple, echoed Flores’ comments in a statement.

“The Waco VA is not targeted for closure. We are in fact adding new additions to the campus for VA care such as a 35-unit housing project and a 15 bed women's recovery unit to treat veterans who experienced military sexual trauma."

"Other VA support services are also located on the Waco grounds; i.e., Finance Service Center (headquartered in Austin), one of the Health Resources Center's Pharmacy Customer Call Centers, and the VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans,” the statement said.

McLennan County Veteran’s Service Officer Steve Hernandez, however, disagrees.

“They’re systematically trying to eliminate the need for a Waco facility,” Hernandez told KWTX.

Edwards’ and Hernandez’s concerns are prompted in part by a law Congress passed in 2017 to establish the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, which has yet to be formed, that is tasked with identifying VA facilities nationwide that could be closed.

The nine-member commission is supposed to review VA facilities, consult with veterans organizations and make realignment recommendations to the president.

The recommendations would also be sent to Congress, as well as posted for public comment on the Federal Register.

In March, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Rounds, D-S.D., introduced legislation to eliminate the VA Mission Act, which, they said, would create a Base Realignment and Closure-like commission to make recommendations.

The independent Base Realignment and Closure is tasked with recommending military facility closures and realignments that the president and Congress may accept or reject as a whole.

“I do not support the creation of a BRAC-like commission that seeks out facilities to close down with no input from Congress,” Rounds said in a statement. “In fact, it’s part of the reason I voted against the VA Mission Act in the first place.”

The Mission Act called for a study on the issue to begin after the next presidential election, but VA chief Robert Wilkie wants it to start sooner, telling the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week that he plans to ask permission from Congress to speed up the timeline.

“I think I’m going to come to you and ask to accelerate the beginning of that commission so that it moves more rapidly than the timeline this committee has given,” Wilkie said during a public hearing.

“I expect to… ask for an accelerated beginning of the deliberations, because we have to go where the veterans are.”

Flores says the process will involve a review of the utilization and effectiveness of facilities across the country.

“The VA will set up a team to look at the facilities across the country, the number of veterans it has in the area, it will also look at the utilization of the facility and it will also look at other alternatives for veterans should a certain facility be closed down,” he said.

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WACO, Texas (KWTX)

By Paul J. Gately

The Doris Miller VA Medical Center in Waco could be on the list for closure under the VA Missions Act approved last year by Congress, which is aimed at identifying VA assets that could be closed or re-purposed.

“They’re systematically trying to eliminate the need for a Waco facility,” Steve Hernandez, McLennan County Veteran’s Service Officer, said Thursday.

In 2017 Congress passed law to establish the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, which has yet to be formed, that is tasked with identifying VA facilities nationwide that could be closed.

But in March, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Rounds, D-S.D., introduced legislation to eliminate the VA Mission Act, which, they said, would create a Base Realignment and Closure-like commission to make recommendations.

The nine-member commission is supposed to review VA facilities, consult with veterans organizations and make realignment recommendations to the president.

The recommendations would also be sent to Congress, as well as posted for public comment on the Federal Register.

Manchin voted for the act, which passed the Senate with a 92-5 vote,

Rounds voted against it.

“I do not support the creation of a BRAC-like commission that seeks out facilities to close down with no input from Congress,” Rounds said in a statement. “In fact, it’s part of the reason I voted against the VA Mission Act in the first place.”

Politics aside, Hernandez said the underlying problem with the VA system currently is “there is no facility in the state or in the country dedicated to serving veterans with mental health issues.

“What’s going on is concerning and the actions undertaken so far speak for themselves,” Hernandez said, but the lack of a VA mental health treatment facility, which the Waco campus used to be, is critically important.

Hernandez said the veteran who committed suicide Tuesday at an Austin VA clinic was a patient who had been enrolled in the Phoenix program at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center in Temple and was discharged, but somehow his case was transferred to the Austin facility.

“When he found out he couldn’t get the help he needed there, he chose to take his own life.”

The most recent government statistics from 2016 show 530 Texas veterans committed suicide, tied with Florida for the most from any state.

“And we’re seeing more of them every day,” Hernandez said.

It wouldn’t be the first time the VA has looked at closing the Waco campus.

Former Central Texas Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards and former Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson collaborated on an effort to prevent the facility from closing back in 2003.

“In my opinion, the Waco community needs to be prepared to defend the Waco VA as it did when Kay Bailey and I were fighting that fight years ago,” Edwards said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C. office.

Part of the current issue is that the law called for a study on the issue to begin after the next presidential election, but VA chief Robert Wilkie wants it to start sooner, telling the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week that he plans to ask permission from Congress to speed up the timeline.

“I think I’m going to come to you and ask to accelerate the beginning of that commission so that it moves more rapidly than the timeline this committee has given,” Wilkie said during a public hearing.

“I expect to… ask for an accelerated beginning of the deliberations, because we have to go where the veterans are.”

Hernandez said the effort has been underway for quite a while as, “they move programs and facilities from the Waco campus to Temple, kind of a competition between the two hospitals,” Hernandez said.

Some on the inside in the nation’s capital say they’ve not heard any specific criticism of the Waco VA or any rumors that Waco would be on a closure or downsizing list, but there is general criticism that too many VA hospitals are in rural areas and some criticism of the “inefficiency” of the old architecture of having multiple medical buildings, which is not generally how modern hospitals are built. 

But that very architecture in Waco lends itself to designation as a mental health treatment facility, Hernandez says.

“Sending these veterans who already are having PTSD or other mental issues elsewhere, there’s no place to park, so by the time they get inside the building they’re already in crisis,” he said.

“But in Waco there’s an open campus and all that stress is removed.”

Waco’s Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which officially opened on May 8, 1932, turns 87 next month.

The hospital has served veterans from World War I through the present day and is considered a model for veteran’s health care worldwide, the VA says.

The medical facility was expanded in 1939 to 1,151 beds from the original 308, and again after World War II to 2,040.

The Waco VA was among the first veteran’s hospitals to have an approved residency program and it was the only veteran’s hospital in the state to be dedicated to treatment of mental illness.

Aspiring neuropsychiatry and clinical psychology students and psychiatric nursing students studied and worked there during their professional training.

Today the campus has slimmed down from its original 508 acres to just more than 125 and from a capacity of 2,040 inpatients in 1945 to fewer than 1,000 today.

The VA says today about 60 percent of the building space available on campus is unused.

Wilkie told committee members that more than half of VA buildings range from 50 to 100 years old and in his written testimony he said the VA has repurposed or disposed of 175 vacant or mostly vacant buildings since June 2017 and is in the process of repurposing or disposing of another 255.

“A government study in 1999 reported to Congress that the VA was spending $1 million a day on buildings it did not need, and in 2003 a government commission recommended closing older, underused hospitals, including the one in Waco,” according to a story published in July 2005 in the Washington Post.

Then Congressman Edwards led the charge to keep the Waco VA open, along with Sen. Hutchison, both of whom organized veteran’s groups, local leaders, medical professionals, patients and citizens who came together to convince the government to leave the Waco hospital in service.

“The City of Waco showed its heart in that fight,” Edwards said in a telephone interview Friday from his Washington, D.C.-area home.

“It was one of the finest examples of a community working together with their representatives to get something done, because if we hadn’t done that, those would be shuttered, old buildings today.”

Edwards said the bi-partisan nature of the effort was evident in that Hutchison signed on to the fight early.

The Waco hospital was “a crown jewel mental hospital,” Edwards said, and helping save it was “one of the most gratifying events of my 28 years of public service.”

Central Texas was served by a third veterans facility for more than a half-century.

The Marlin VA hospital, formerly the Tom Connally Veterans Facility, opened in 1950 after World War II, but was completely shut down in 2005.

Former Central Texas state Sen. Kip Averitt intended for the state to turn the facility into a hospital to provide medical care for prison inmates with critical health conditions, but lost funding during the 2008 recession, and the hospital has been vacant since.

The State of Texas announced June 12, 2017 it had sold the Marlin VA hospital to a group of investors who had plans to transform it into a veteran transition facility.