Lawmakers urge VA to rethink closure of Leeds medical center

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, home to the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • U.S. Rep Jim McGovern speaking at the rededication ceremony of Whately’s Veterans Memorial in November 2021. Staff Photo/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 4/17/2022 8:23:02 PM
Modified: 4/17/2022 8:21:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Nearly every member of the state’s congressional delegation has written a letter asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reconsider its proposal to close the VA medical center in Leeds.

Sent on Thursday, the letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough expresses concern that the recommended closure will jeopardize veterans’ access to high-quality, specialized care in western and central Massachusetts. The Central Western Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Medical Center, as the facility is known, appeared last month on a list of facilities and services targeted for the ax — part of a process created by the VA MISSION Act of 2018, under which veteran care will be outsourced to private-sector providers.

“Of particular concern is that many veterans would now need to travel at least two-hours round trip to receive care at VA medical centers in West Haven, Connecticut; Eastern Massachusetts; or Albany, New York,” the lawmakers’ letter said. “Due to health status, advanced age, or lack of public transportation, far too many of the approximately 21,000 veterans who currently receive care at CWM VAMC would be unduly burdened.”

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, led the effort, joined by seven of the state’s eight other representatives and its two senators. U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, is the only one of the state’s 11 U.S. senators and representatives who did not sign the letter. A spokesperson for Moulton did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

In their letter, the lawmakers say that another area of “significant concern” is reduced access to veteran-focused mental health services in a region already unable to meet those demands. The Leeds facility hosts inpatient mental health services such as a residential rehabilitation treatment program for those experiencing post-traumatic stress or suffering from substance-use disorder.

The delegation also said that removing the facility’s 28-bed community living center would “put additional strain on veterans requiring nursing home level care.”

“We worry that moving these services to locations in Connecticut or Eastern Massachusetts would result in veterans either not getting the care they need or putting incredible strain on their families and loved ones,” the letter says.

Finally, the letter says that because the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission report relies on old data from fiscal years 2015 through 2018, the proposed closure doesn’t “doesn’t accurately reflect the medical center’s current standing or future potential.” They note that since then, more than $108 million has been spent on renovation and modernization projects at the facility.

“Additionally, nearly $93,000,000 in future upgrades are planned for the coming years,” the letter states. “The VA has already made significant investments to the facility and closure would be a waste of those improvements.”

The lawmakers ask the VA to reconsider the proposal and say that they look forward to the AIR Commission’s public hearing to convey how important the Leeds facility is to “our veterans, their families and the entire region.”

Any changes that come to the Leeds facility will be years down the road. In a statement after news of the proposed closure broke, a spokesperson for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System noted that the AIR Commission has, for the moment, only made recommendations.

“The AIR Commission is an opportunity to redesign VA health care to maximize access and outcomes for current and future generations of veterans,” the statement said.

The Central Western Massachusetts Veteran Affairs Medical Center was built in 1923, and has become a destination for veterans in the region seeking its services. It was one of only three facilities in the U.S. slated for closure in the AIR Commission’s report. The report said factors such as “significant facilities maintenance issues and investment requirements” mean that the center is no longer adequate.

According to the report, the veteran population and demand for inpatient care in the region are projected to decrease while the demand for outpatient services will rise, though some local lawmakers have disagreed with that assessment.

The report 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.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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