updated 2/13/2004 4:03:17 PM ET 2004-02-13T21:03:17

Veterans hospitals in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Mississippi should be shut down, but the administration should scrap plans to close facilities in New York, Kentucky and California, an advisory commission said Friday.

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The 16-member panel appointed to review the Department of Veterans Affairs projected realignment of its health care system also agreed with the Bush administration that a new hospital was needed in Orlando, Fla. It disagreed with the recommendation for one in Las Vegas.

VA Secretary Anthony Principi promised to decide in about a month which hospitals to close or reduce in size. Democrats were skeptical that final decisions to close any of them would come in an election year.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said the importance of Ohio and Pennsylvania in the presidential campaign could outweigh arguments in favor of closing hospitals in those two states.

“I’d be surprised,” said Daschle, D-S.D., if the Bush administration were to accept the commission’s recommendations, especially considering the elections coming this year.

Inappropriate plans?
Veterans groups say the government shouldn’t even be thinking about shutting down VA facilities while U.S. soldiers are being wounded in Iraq. “Regardless of the election, it seems inappropriate to close veterans hospitals in time of war,” said Steve Thomas, a spokesman for the American Legion.

The VA advisory panel rejected administration proposals to close hospitals in Canandaigua, N.Y.; Lexington, Ky.; and Livermore, Calif. It agreed with the administration on the closure of hospitals in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Gulfport, Miss., and transferring large portions of care away from the hospital in Waco, Texas.

Vietnam veteran Roger Sturdevant, 53, goes to the Waco VA hospital several times a week for therapeutic swimming and post-traumatic stress disorder group therapy. “I think it’s terrible for them to make vets go so far from home,” he said Friday. “They’re slitting our throats. They don’t care about us. Period.”

Instead of opening a new hospital in Las Vegas, the CARES (Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services) Commission said the VA should continue partnering with Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Despite that recommendation, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said Principi told him Thursday that a full-service medical facility, including an outpatient hospital and nursing home for veterans, would be built in Las Vegas.

Cynthia Church, a spokeswoman for Principi, said the VA secretary would not comment on the recommendations until he makes his decision about them.

Changes in trends
The VA’s highest priority should be employee and patient safety, the commission said. It said the VA should move quickly to upgrade 63 facilities to withstand earthquakes. The San Fernando Valley VA hospital in California collapsed in 1971 during an earthquake, killing patients and employees.

The commission accepted or rejected several other proposals affecting dozens of VA facilities across the country as part of a 20-year plan. In some cases, it said, the department provided insufficient data to support changes in some facilities’ missions.

“The commission believes that change is necessary to prepare the system for a new veteran demographic reality and a rapidly evolving approach to health care delivery,” the panel members said in their report.

The population of veterans has shifted away from northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Boston and New York to Florida, Texas, Arizona and other Sun Belt states.

VA officials told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee this week that the department already was at work on 41 likely projects in anticipation of the commission’s recommendations. How quickly changes would come after Principi’s decisions was uncertain.

The VA began a look at restructuring its health care network after government auditors predicted in 1999 that it soon would be spending billions of dollars to operate unneeded facilities.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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