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Veterans around Kansas City may have to wait longer and travel farther if VA closes rural facilities

Dozens of people gather at  Oppenstein Brothers Memorial Park Tuesday to protest possible closures of VA medical centers.
Savannah Hawley
/
KCUR 89.3
Dozens of people gather at Oppenstein Brothers Memorial Park Tuesday to protest possible closures of VA medical centers

Dozens of workers protested across the street from the Heartland VA Network on Tuesday in opposition to the potential closure of several area health care providers. They want the Department of Veterans Affairs to avoid layoffs and revitalize existing VA centers.

Workers at Kansas City-area Veterans Affairs centers say the potential closure of several facilities in the region would be bad for veterans.

Veterans and members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) District 9 union protested across the street from the Heartland VA Network on Tuesday. They say they oppose the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) proposed closure of many facilities across the country.

The proposal was made by the VA to the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission to overhaul its health network to help address recruitment challenges and decreasing demand for services in some areas. If implemented and approved by Congress, the government would close 172 of its more than 800 clinics. The department also recommends increasing its medical specialty clinics by 56%, to 388, and relying more on private sector providers.

Janet Constance, a PTSD psychologist at the VA in Kansas City and a member of the AFGE Local 9, worries that regional closures will decrease access for veterans who need specialized care or live in rural areas.

“It is extremely important that our veterans continue to have access to specialty services within their communities and closures are gonna mean longer wait times, longer drives, and that's just unacceptable,” Constance said. “Our veterans have already paid for their care with their service – they need to continue to receive that top notch care. If more veterans come to Kansas city, that's gonna lead to potentially a decrease in timely care for everyone.”

Those changes would have a major impact on the Kansas City region. If approved, the VA would:

  • Discontinue emergency, inpatient medical and outpatient surgical services at the Topeka, Kansas, medical center
  • Reduce the 23-bed inpatient medical center in Leavenworth, Kansas, to a 12-bed observation hospital
  • Close the Platte City, Missouri, community-based outpatient clinic and open a new site in northwest Kansas City
  • Close a community-based outpatient clinic in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, and replace it with a new site in Liberty, Missouri
  • Establish a new stand-alone community living center – or nursing home – in Kansas City, Missouri, about 10 miles southeast of the Kansas City medical center.
VA protest 1
Savannah Hawley
/
KCUR 89.3
Gladys (L) and Eugene (R) Martin attended the protest in hopes no veterans will lose their VA providers

In between chants of “Don’t privatize my VA,” and “They fought for us, we fight for them,” AFGE members spoke about how the closures would cause mass layoffs and force many into more expensive, private care.

Eugene Martin, an AFGE local 9 member, says these changes put veterans at risk of finding their own private healthcare.

“We have tons of veterans in the United States who need healthcare and who are serviced by VA hospitals and clinics. I simply don't want to see our veterans have to go find healthcare elsewhere,” said Martin. “There are many veterans who live out in rural areas. Many of them who previously went to outlying clinics will now have to go a long distance to try to find service.”

Increased reliance on the Kansas City medical center and private providers would add patients to area hospitals. Keena Smith, a veteran and legislative political organizer for AFGE, thinks the proposed changes only benefit higher-ups who would profit from the privatization of the VA. Instead, she wants to see a revitalization of the VA.

“The healthcare system is already fractured. They're already tired, they're already exhausted. And these veterans have paid so much – they sacrificed so much,” Smith said. “The money that they use to outsource could be [used] to fill those positions that are vacant within VA hospitals, to revamp and remodel those facilities that need the work. I just think it's a slap in a veteran's space to tell them that we hear you, but we're not listening because we want to contract this out.”

Veterans and members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) District 9 union protested across the street from the Heartland VA Network on Tuesday. They oppose the possible closure of nearly 200 VA centers.
Savannah Hawley
/
KCUR 89.3
Veterans and members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) District 9 union protested across the street from the Heartland VA Network on Tuesday. They oppose the possible closure of nearly 200 VA centers.

Kevin Ellis works at the VA medical center in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and is president of the AFGE local 2338. He attended the protest because the plan would reduce his medical center to a nursing home. In his small town, that would force many of those they care for to drive three hours to the nearest hospital.

“Surveys have told us over and over and over: veterans feel valued when they come to the VA medical center, not when they go to the public,” Ellis said. “I want [the VA] to stop this, come sit with us and learn firsthand what the ramifications would be.”

The AIR Commission will have a year to review the VA proposal and make its own proposals to the White House. If it moves forward, Congress will vote on accepting either all or none of the recommendations.

Protests also took place recently in New York, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota.

Updated: June 8, 2022 at 4:32 PM CDT
This story was updated to clarify Congress' role in the VA recommendations.
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