Area lawmakers disapprove of plan to close VA medical center in Leeds

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, part of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/18/2022 5:37:04 PM
Modified: 3/18/2022 5:36:25 PM

A federal report recommending the closure of a Northampton Veteran Affairs Medical Center is drawing criticism from area legislators, many of whom who say they will push back against such a move if it occurs in the coming years.

The Department of Veterans Affairs report released Monday plans to move the inpatient services provided at the center to Newington, Connecticut, and the outpatient services will be moved to a facility “in the vicinity of Springfield.”

“This recommendation is a slap in the face to the more than 24,000 veterans who receive treatment at the Northampton VA and who have served our nation at the highest levels,” said Sen. John Velis. D-Westfield in a statement. “I have profound concerns with this proposal and the impact it would have on veterans in our region.”

The Central Western Massachusetts Veteran Affairs Medical Center has provided services to veterans in Northampton for decades. Originally built in 1923, the center provides housing and inpatient care for many individuals. Veterans from neighboring regions like Franklin County also choose to commute to Leeds to avail the services provided.

The report pointed out several factors such as “significant facilities maintenance issues and investment requirements” and concluded that the center is no longer adequate.

“We know infrastructure gets old, and we also know that our federal government has long had a problem with updating infrastructure,” said state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton. “So, I guess I would recommend to them that they work on spending bills and making sure our infrastructure is updated, rather than shutting down facilities.”

According to the report, the veteran population and demand for inpatient care in the region are projected to decrease. Conversely, the demand for outpatient services will rise. It also noted that the location of the Leeds facility is no longer optimal due to the migration of a significant veteran population to a “largely urban corridor that runs from Springfield, Massachusetts through Hartford, Connecticut, and on to the Greater New Haven, Connecticut, area.”

Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, disagrees.

“Though I cannot speak to the infrastructure, I do disagree that the veteran population is decreasing,” said Gobi, who is a member of the Legislature’s Veterans’ and Federal Affairs Committee. “Having talked and worked with veterans, I can tell you there is an increase in the veteran population, especially women population.”

The Northampton facility is only the third center in the country to be recommended for closure — the other two are in Brooklyn, New York, and Chillicothe, Ohio. These recommendations are required under the 2018 VA Mission Act that aims to increase access to care facilities for veterans.

Gobi highlighted the silver lining: the recommendation will take no less than a few years to be executed. The recommendations will be deliberated and approved by Congress, followed by the approval of President Biden.

Since the report was published, several federal lawmakers have also publicly spoken out. U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, and Richard Neal, D-Springfield, issued a joint statement criticizing the recommendation. In a statement, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also outlined her intention to work with the Biden administration to make sure the access to proper care for veterans is not jeopardized by this recommendation.

Velis, a veteran and Senate Chair of the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee made clear that he will do anything in his power to prevent this closure — including calling for a public hearing against it.

“I will certainly join that hearing and testify on behalf of constituents and offer support to all my colleagues who are pushing back,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. “But it’s going to take more than our unanimity to ensure this. We are at the beginning of a long process, so we must be very strategic in pushing for this, for regional equity that our constituents need and deserve.”

Aryan Rai writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.


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