Some veterans in New York City are speaking out against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ proposal to close its medical center in Fort Hamilton at the southern tip of Brooklyn.
The agency said the facility is out of date and difficult to access by public transportation, in addition to being located in an area that’s home to a declining number of military servicepeople. It is also moving to replace another medical center in Manhattan under a proposal that would likely mean lower hospital capacity.
The plans are part of a larger nationwide overhaul of the VA health system that could affect several facilities in New York City and the surrounding areas. The VA officially released its overhaul plan Monday, but details began to leak last week, leading U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents southern Brooklyn, to organize a protest in front of the hospital campus Sunday.
“The president said fully supporting veterans and caring for them and expanding access to health care is a goal of his administration,” Malliotakis said, surrounded by veterans at the rally. “If that's true and that is the case, then this proposal should be dead on arrival when it gets to the president of the United States and we expect no less than that.”
The VA said in its justification for the proposed closure that enrollment in VA health care in Brooklyn is expected to decrease by about 22% over the next decade, and that the veterans who do live in Brooklyn don’t tend to live near the hospital.
But Daniel Friedman, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, called the proposal “an insult to veterans” in an interview with Gothamist Tuesday. He said he received quality care at the Brooklyn VA and worried that non-VA facilities wouldn’t be able to provide such specialized care.
“The staff at a regular hospital are not going to be attuned to the unique needs of veterans,” said Friedman. “They barely know how to spell PTSD. They're not familiar with Agent Orange.”
Agent Orange is a chemical that was used in the Vietnam War that has been linked to a long list of cancers and other diseases in those who were exposed.
The VA is also proposing to close its Manhattan medical center on East 23rd Street, citing a similar decline in enrollment in the borough. But the VA said it would seek to replace that location with a new facility operated in collaboration with another hospital such as nearby NYU Langone. The new Manhattan facility would be “rightsized” — likely meaning fewer inpatient beds — and its emergency department would be replaced by an urgent care center.
The VA noted in its report that the Manhattan campus “sits on a desirable piece of land that could be valuable to a development partner.”
While the VA aims to minimize its inpatient and emergency services in the city, it would seek to expand its residential and outpatient programs for aging veterans as well as those with mental health and substance use issues at its St. Albans campus in Queens. But the VA is also seeking to concentrate residential rehabilitation services at this campus while closing other facilities, including one in Brooklyn and one on Long Island — meaning some patients could end up having to get care farther from home.
"Veterans will always be at the center of what we do,” Terrence Hayes, a VA press secretary, said in a statement on the proposal. He added that this “is an opportunity to redesign VA health care to maximize access and outcomes for current and future generations of Veterans."
Jeremy Butler, CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group headquartered in New York City, said the VA system is in great need of an update. He said he didn’t think people should make snap judgments about the far-reaching plan.
“Let’s focus on maximizing veterans’ access to these facilities,” Butler said. “Part of that you do by making sure that they're designed in a way that is appealing to the new generation of veterans.”
The different opinions on the hospital plans could signify an age divide. Butler said he himself does not use the VA facilities and that many other veterans in his generation opt not to as well — an issue he said could be addressed, in part, through modernization.
But Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, tweeted a video of Malliotakis’ Sunday rally with his own commentary. He cautioned President Joe Biden, “It's hard to think of anything that will hurt you in the midterms more…than closing VA facilities.”
The recommendations issued by the VA this week were the first step in what will likely be a yearslong effort to update the agency’s aging facilities and account for veterans’ changing demographics and needs. The changes must now be submitted to the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, which will review them in the coming year and issue its own guidance. The final plan will have to be approved by Congress and the president.
The process of reevaluating the VA health system was kicked off by the VA Mission Act, a law signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018.