Bay Ridge

Plan to convert Brooklyn VA Hospital to ambulatory center raises alarm with vets, pols

August 18, 2017 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A plan to eliminate inpatient surgery at Brooklyn’s VA hospital is raising alarm among Brooklyn and Staten Island military veterans and local officials. Shown: Due to budget cuts, in June 2016, the VA closed another health care facility at 25 Chapel St. in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo by Mary Frost

VA Says it Will Improve Quality and Be More Efficient

A plan to eliminate inpatient surgery at Brooklyn’s VA hospital and transfer these services to the Manhattan VA hospital is raising alarm among Brooklyn and Staten Island military veterans and local officials, who say they are worried the move will cause a hardship for veterans in the outer boroughs.

On Wednesday, more than a dozen New York City officials, led by U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan (Bay Ridge, Staten Island), wrote a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin urging the Veterans Administration to reconsider the move, which would transform the Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center at 800 Poly Place in Bay Ridge from a “complex” to an “ambulatory advanced” facility.

The officials said the VA isn’t considering the difficulties the vets and their families will face traveling into Manhattan, forcing them to delay or forgo necessary medical treatment.

“Our veterans have sacrificed enough, and it’s unacceptable for any past or present service member to lose access or go through increased hurdles to get the medical services they rely on,” Donovan said in a statement.

State Sen. Martin Golden (Bay Ridge, Marine Park) said in the statement that veterans should not be “forced to travel to Manhattan to receive the tests, treatments and programs of which they are entitled. Instead, we should be looking for ways to expand our local VA hospitals so that each borough will have an easily accessible medical facility that meets the demands of the growing local veteran population.”

A number of veterans’ groups also came out against the change. Kristen Rouse, Army veteran and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance, said, “Many of us still remember the months and years of problems at the Manhattan VA caused by Hurricane Sandy, and are alarmed that services in Brooklyn seem to be vanishing before our eyes.”

The Brooklyn facility is located 12.5 miles away from the Manhattan campus on the east side of Manhattan. According to Google Maps, traveling between the two facilities by car takes anywhere from 35 minutes to 1 hour and 25 minutes on a weekday morning. It takes roughly 1 hour and 20 minutes by mass transit. Traveling to the Manhattan campus from a point near the center of Staten Island, where many patients live, takes roughly two hours by car.

VA says plan will improve care; travel needs ‘will be addressed’

Claudie Benjamin, spokesman for the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System, told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday that the proposal was not a cutback, but rather an enhancement.

 The change would improve the quality and outcomes of complex surgery (about 20 percent of all procedures) while expanding access to procedures at both locations, she said.

Outcomes would improve if complex surgeries were performed in Manhattan “because of the availability of highly sophisticated technology and the operation of a specialized surgical ICU at the Manhattan campus,” she said. Benjamin noted that medical data backed up the idea that outcomes improve as the volume of procedures increase.

In a business plan justifying the proposal, Patrick Malloy, executive chief of staff at the VA’s New York Harbor Healthcare System, said that the Manhattan campus has nine operating room suites, only six of which are currently staffed. The additional volume from Brooklyn — about 450 cases a year — could be accommodated by opening one or two of these rooms.

Advanced ambulatory surgery (currently about 80 percent of the procedure volume) would be expanding in Brooklyn, Benjamin said.

“We are completely rebuilding a state of the art [operating room] suite at Brooklyn and expect this project to be completed in January 2018,” she said. “In addition, we have substantially invested in new technology for surgical procedures at Brooklyn, including advanced endoscopy, arthroscopy and laparoscopy systems, image guided surgical systems and new laser systems in multiple surgical specialties.”

Benjamin said that travel needs will be addressed for patients and families “for whom travel to Manhattan would be burdensome.” She added that the VA is currently renovating apartment suites in a building that adjoins the hospital “to provide comfortable and convenient temporary accommodations for family members.”

Losing services in Brooklyn?

The Manhattan campus has been taking over an increased number of surgeries from the Brooklyn campus over recent years as the Manhattan facility gained specialized staff and advanced technology, such as a surgical robot for complex prostate surgery.

Due to a budget shortfall, the Brooklyn VA hospital closed a 25-bed unit in July 2015, leaving the facility with just two inpatient units.

In June 2016, the VA closed another health care facility at 25 Chapel St. in Downtown Brooklyn, where many low-income or homeless veterans socialized and received meals along with health care. According to Rouse, shuttle buses provided to take these vets to the Manhattan campus have not been adequate.

The Brooklyn facility served a critical need following Superstorm Sandy, when the Manhattan center had to close for several months. It took years to recover from Sandy, Rouse said, “And it appears to remain vulnerable to rising sea levels and higher intensity storms that could shut it down completely.”

In response to that concern, Benjamin said that the VA “expedited the construction of a flood wall [in Manhattan] to protect the hospital from any future flooding and need for emergency displacement of patients and staff. “

The submitted proposal is currently on hold without a timeline for further action, Benjamin said.

Signing the letter along with Donovan and Golden were Staten Island Borough President James Oddo; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; state Sens. Andrew Lanza and Diane Savino; state Assistant Speaker Felix W. Ortiz; state Assemblymembers Ron Castorina, Michael Cusick, Nicole Malliotakis, Steven Cymbrowitz and Peter Abbate; NYC Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo; NYC Council Minority Whip Joe Borelli and NYC Councilmember Debi Rose.

Local veterans’ groups opposing the proposal include NYC Veterans Alliance, Korean War Veterans of Staten Island, Disabled American Veterans (Chapter 154), Vietnam Veterans of American (Thomas J. Tori Chapter 421), United Military Veterans of Kings County, and Rolling Thunder NY2.