Dozens rally against recommended VA medical center closure

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  • Air Force veteran Tom Patrick, center, of Hatfield attends a “Save the Northampton VA!” rally organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds, Monday. Patrick said he has received services at the Leeds VA for about 50 years. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Air Force veteran Tom Patrick, left, of Hatfield listens to State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, speak at a “Save the Northampton VA!” at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility at Leeds on Monday, March 28, 2022. Patrick said he has received services in Leeds for about 50 years. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, a veteran of the Afghan war, speaks to about 40 people gathered for a "Save the Northampton VA!" rally at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds on Monday, March 28, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • David Felty, commander of Michael F. Curtin VFW Post 8006 in Florence, speaks at a “Save the Northampton VA!” rally at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs facility in Leeds on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • State Rep. Jacob Oliveira, D-Ludlow, chats with Koby Gardner-Levine, left, a representative for U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, before the start of a “Save the Northampton VA!” rally Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Northampton Ward 7 City Councilor Rachel Maiore speaks at a "Save the Northampton VA!" rally at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds on Monday, March 28, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, speaks at a "Save the Northampton VA!" rally at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds on Monday, March 28, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    State Rep. Jacob Oliveira, D-Ludlow, speaks at a "Save the Northampton VA!" rally organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds on Monday, March 28, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2022 8:54:38 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A Monday rally outside the VA medical center in Leeds drew veterans, nurses, elected officials and concerned activists to demand that the federal government reject a recommendation that the facility shut down.

The 2 p.m. rally organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association was held outside the 421 N. Main St. medical campus on a day with high, bitterly cold winds. The MNA does not represent any VA employees, but they are part of a coalition of groups opposing the potential closure.

As protesters gathered on the grass near the main vehicle entrance, a VA police officer asked them to move a few hundred feet down the road and assemble on the public sidewalk. Speakers’ voices sometimes competed with the gusting wind at a rally that was postponed from last Friday due to rain.

“We all know how devastating this would be to our communities and especially to our vets,” Rudy Renaud, an organizer with the MNA and former president of the Greenfield Town Council, said. “Why is it that we’re always, always hurting those who help us the most, and we’re always hurting the most vulnerable?”

A federal Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) report released earlier this month recommends closing the facility, citing $121 million worth of building and design deficiencies plus $7.5 million in annual operations and maintenance costs.

Inpatient services would be relocated to Newington, Connecticut, which is about an hour south of Leeds. Outpatient services would be moved to “a new site in the vicinity of Springfield,” according to the report.

The report projects that the number of veterans in western Massachusetts and Connecticut — now about 91,000 — will drop 17% over the next decade. The area’s largest veteran populations are in Hampden County and New Haven and Hartford counties in Connecticut.

In a statement accompanying the report, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said that the “AIR report is the result of years of research and analysis intended to help VA build a health care network with the right facilities, in the right places, to provide the right care for all Veterans, including underserved and at-risk Veteran populations in every part of the country — making sure our facilities and services are accessible to Veterans in their communities.”

A presidential commission will make further recommendations to President Joe Biden next year as part of a lengthy public comment and review process. The report also recommends closing VA hospitals in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chillicothe, Ohio.

Known today as the Edward P. Boland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, construction of the Northampton hospital started a century ago in 1922. The 105-acre campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern and Richard Neal have called for the hospital to remain open. At Monday’s rally, Koby Gardner-Levine, McGovern’s district representative, said the congressman plans to hold a town hall in Northampton to elicit public feedback.

“I want to be clear that the congressman is going to do everything he can to reverse this decision,” Gardner-Levine said. McGovern is drafting a letter to Biden and VA Secretary Denis McDonough on behalf of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to present the “glaring issues with this recommendation and the adverse impact that it will have on our region.”

State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, has said the recommendation to close is “a slap in the face to the more than 24,000 veterans who receive treatment at the Northampton VA,” including those who travel from Franklin County and elsewhere. On Monday, he repeated that criticism and pledged to do all he can to stop the closure.

“I, just last week, had a conversation with a veteran of the Korean War at Giovanni’s in Agawam, who said that if this move goes forward, ‘I’m just not going to get the treatment,’” Velis said. “How is that the right answer for the men and women who so selflessly decided to serve their country? We need to do everything in our power. We need to join forces.”

Velis is a veteran of the Afghan war, a major in the U.S. Army Reserves and Senate chair of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.

Northampton City Councilor Rachel Maiore of Ward 7 spoke highly of the existing services for veterans, like the therapeutic greenhouse and a wheelchair-accessible track for exercise.

“Someone is thinking about vets and they’re not settling for the minimum for vets,” Maiore said. “This is what thoughtful, comprehensive health care looks like and this is what our veterans deserve. … This is a place that is worth fighting for and so that’s what we’re going to do.”

The facility’s PTSD treatment program is regarded as one of the best in the country, according to David Felty, president and CEO of Homeward Vets and commander of the VFW Post 8006 in Florence. He said 110 VFW members use the VA medical center, himself included.

“The mere thought of closing this facility has dramatically increased the anxiety of our members, leaving many to wonder what the future of their health care may look like,” Felty said. “So many veterans are going to be forced to make choices on how or even if they can afford to possibly go to another VA facility within the state or travel to another state to receive care.”

Many VA patients get to the facility on public transportation, he said, which will no longer be an option if the closure occurs. Those veterans, he said, “will be left behind.”

Closing the hospital would also affect housing services offered through the next-door women’s shelter and the Soldier On organization, Felty said.

Other elected officials who attended the rally included state Rep. Jacob Oliveira, D-Ludlow; state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton; and Northampton City Councilors Stanley Moulton and Alex Jarrett.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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