Fort Wayne's sprawling VA Medical Center on Lake Avenue is being recommended for closing – or greatly altering the services it provides – in a federal plan advanced this week.
The plan would end surgeries and inpatient care and establish an outpatient clinic on the property instead. Veterans needing care requiring an overnight stay would be routed to existing VA facilities outside Fort Wayne or to “community-based” contracted hospitals.
The report to the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, known as AIR, recommends closing dozens of VA hospitals and clinics around the nation. The VA is facing a slew of aging buildings in need of modernizing, the report says, and the health system needs to “right-size” itself as the number of veterans declines.
It's not the first time the Fort Wayne facility has faced the prospect of closing. In 2004, a nationwide reorganization proposed shutting down the hospital, but that plan got a reprieve by 2006. By 2018, the facility had gotten $14 million in upgrades as part of $150 million in projects.
Now, the new report says the medical center has $39.5 million in facility deficiencies and “space and structural constraints” on its 27-acre site.
Eric Clapp, vice president of Local 1384 of the American Federation of Government Employees union, said the report is still preliminary. But if enacted, the plan would likely result in lost jobs at the local facility and a negative economic impact on the Fort Wayne area, he said.
“This is not etched in stone,” Clapp said of the new plan. “It's a lengthy process that could last five years. There will be (public) hearings, and it will have to be voted totally up by Congress or down by Congress.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, serves on the House Committees on Veterans Affairs and Armed Services and is himself a veteran.
“I think it's too soon to say whether we're for it or against it,” Banks said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He said the plan could be a good for veterans by allowing more choice for those needing surgery and inpatient care. The VA made the local recommendations “based on the excellent providers” in the Fort Wayne area, Banks said.
But he also has questions – including why the VA medical facility in Marion was not set to end inpatient care but Fort Wayne's was. He said he outlined his concerns Tuesday in a letter to the head of the VA.
According to the report, the Fort Wayne VA medical center, opened in 1949, has “a need to modernize facilities to meet current health-care delivery standards and expand access for veterans to receive care in a new and efficient environment.”
Also, mental health services are currently provided off-site, and the report recommends closing that site on East State Boulevard in favor of the newly planned outpatient clinic.
“VA recommends relocating primary care, outpatient mental health, and outpatient specialty care services to a new (outpatient clinic) on the existing Fort Wayne property. VA recommends relocating inpatient medical, outpatient surgical, and emergency department services to community providers,” the report says.
The report also suggests combining senior leadership at three VA facilities – Marion, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
Banks said the report still must be presented to the AIR commission, some of whose members have yet to be named by President Joe Biden or confirmed.
Once that happens, the commission will undertake a yearlong process of reviewing the recommendations, holding public hearings and submitting its own findings to Congress and the president by the end of January 2023, Banks said.
Clapp said the area's many veterans groups will likely weigh in on the proposal. He added recommendations have been changed or even scrapped.
Everett Kelley, national union president, said in a statement last week the plans would “dismantle large segments of the VA health care system,” while VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the changes would result in better working conditions for employees and more accessible care for veterans.
The new system would bring 500,000 more veterans within an hour's drive of primary or specialty care, McDonough said.
The Fort Wayne area has just under 23,000 veterans enrolled in VA health services, the report says. The Fort Wayne VA Medical Center serves the veteran population throughout northern Indiana.
“It's important to know that our veterans will be taken care of, no matter what,” Banks said.
The full report can be accessed here: https://www.va.gov/aircommissionreport/
Letter from Jim Banks
March 15, 2022
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20420
I am contacting you today with questions about the Department of Veterans Affairs' recent recommendation to end inpatient services at the Fort Wayne VA Medical Center (VAMC) and establish a new Multi-Service Community-Based Outpatient Clinic (MS-CBOC) on its current site. As a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and a veteran myself, I want to be sure the Department is doing everything possible to deliver fair treatment in world-class facilities to Hoosier veterans.
I had the honor of being on hand when President Donald Trump signed the VA Mission Act into law. This legislation streamlined the VA's duplicative community care programs into one program, expanded the VA's post-9/11 Caregiver Program to all eras, and extended the Veterans Choice Program. Additionally, the bill created the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) process to better understand if the department is providing the best possible care to veterans and to see what improvements it can make to its facilities across the country.
I also support the efforts to realign the Department's services and infrastructure to improve access and quality of care to veterans advocated in the VA Mission Act. However, the recommendations to the AIR Commission from your agency do not address some important questions specific to veterans in northeast Indiana:
1. Based on the information provided in the recommendations, it was not clear why the VA
recommended ending inpatient services in Fort Wayne as opposed to Marion. Can you provide
additional information as to how your agency came to this conclusion?
2. The report indicated two of the three counties with the largest veteran populations were located in the northern part of the service area of the proposed new Veterans Health Indiana service area. How does providing inpatient care at a location further from veterans in the northern part of the state help best meet veterans' needs?
3. Based on these recommendations, how would program support to homeless veterans in northeast Indiana be delivered?
4. The VA has invested at least $100 million in ongoing and completed improvements to the Fort Wayne VAMC and the Marion VAMC since I took office. The recommendations indicate that patient spaces in these facilities are not conducive to the VA's PACT model. When evaluating the infrastructure at these facilities was the result of the new investment in these patient care areas considered?
5. The VA Mission Act required the AIR Commission members to be nominated by May 2021. Yet, none have been nominated, much less confirmed. Who is responsible for nominating members to the commission, what are the qualifications to serve on the commission, and when can we expect the nominations to be announced?
6. The VA Mission Act requires the AIR Commission to send all recommendations about changes to VA facilities around the country to the president by January 31, 2023. Does the VA believe this is still a feasible timeline?
7. The recommendation indicates mental health services to veterans in the Fort Wayne area should be provided through a multi-specialty community-based outpatient clinic. How does the VA envision these services will be delivered? Can you provide examples of how these services are delivered through similar facilities in the current alignment of the VA Healthcare System?
I have also requested that VISN 10 provide the background information and data that produced these recommendations for veteran services in Indiana but have not yet received a response to that request. While the Department's recent recommendation is the first step in a long and thorough process, clarity must be provided to veterans in northeast Indiana who receive care at the Fort Wayne VAMC. I request answers to my questions by April 1st, 2022.
Thanks for your service on behalf of our veterans. Please contact me if you require any additional information pertaining to this request.
Member of Congress
Indiana's 3rd District