WASHINGTON – Billy Buck says he is in good health now, but the Army veteran worries about what might happen if the Department of Veterans Affairs scales back services at nearby Fort Howard VA Medical Center.
Buck, a resident of Dundalk, said it would take him an extra 45 minutes to reach the Baltimore VA Medical Center for inpatient care if that service is shifted from Fort Howard as the VA has proposed.
“If the bottom line here is money, I’ll do everything I can to stop this,” said Buck, 59. “If they eliminate the hospital, I’m worried about this community down here dying. I’m trying to upgrade this community.”
He plans to join other veterans and hospital workers at a Veterans Day rally to protest the planned reduction in services at Fort Howard.
But VA officials say vets like Buck will actually benefit from the proposed shift of inpatient services out of the dilapidated Fort Howard facility to the “more modern and comfortable” Baltimore VA Medical Center.
“We think this is a very proactive approach,” said David Edwards, spokesman for the VA Maryland Healthcare System.
Edwards said a recent General Accounting Office report found that it would have cost $23 million to renovate the 56-year-old Fort Howard, an “outdated and underutilized” facility that averages only 73 patients in its 85 beds on a given day. The hospital, which served about 8,000 of the state’s 520,000 vets in fiscal 1999, has leaking windows, bad plumbing, no air conditioning and little privacy, among other problems, the GAO report said.
The VA proposal, which still needs approval from the VA in Washington, would shift inpatient care to other facilities, leaving Fort Howard to offer only outpatient services. The shift would save an estimated $3.5 million in the first year and $79 million after a decade, Edwards said.
The 320 workers at Fort Howard would be shifted to other facilities if the change takes place, which would not come before 2001.
Currently, Fort Howard provides non-acute care and rehabilitation, including physical therapy and speech therapy. The Baltimore VA Medical Center offers acute medical and surgery care while the Baltimore VA Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center specializes in non-acute inpatient care. The Perry Point VA Medical Center provides mental health care to veterans.
But Buck, who served with an Army artillery unit in Korea from 1963-64, said it is not as easy for veterans to shift from one hospital to another as VA planners make it sound.
“A lot of vets don’t have the money or the means to get around,” said Buck’s wife, Thelma Horn-Buck. “I think it [the proposal] is terrible and Billy’s really upset about it. I have to tell him to `ssshhh.’
Edwards said that vets’ concerns about travel problems between Fort Howard and the other facilities are unfounded. A free shuttle bus that now runs from Fort Howard to Baltimore Medical Center to Perry Point would be expanded, he said.
He also noted that Baltimore VA Medical Center is only about 25 minutes from Fort Howard. “The only facility that is 50 miles away is Perry Point,” he said.
Some veterans’ groups are still leery of the proposal.
“The issue here isn’t the loss of physical space,” said Scott Campbell, spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans of America. “The issue is quality and complete health care for veterans.
“It doesn’t matter if they close a fort or a building, it’s not the structure that counts. If they do move outpatient care, will the caregivers go with the patients?” asked Campbell, noting that workers do not always move with their jobs.
“We need to be concerned about what the alternatives will be once the patients get to the new facility,” he said.