By Michael Morton
With veterans already on edge about possible changes to their medical centers in Brooklyn and Manhattan, a panel studying conditions at the St. Albans facility sought to assure former military personnel that there would not be a service cut during a meeting at the hospital last Thursday. Still, some vets questioned preliminary numbers developed by the federal Veterans Department predicting an eventual decline in demand due to World War II personnel dying off. “I'm looking at a smoke screen with a bunch of lies,” said Pat Toro Jr., the president of the Queens Chapter #32 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “It doesn't make any sense.”Toro and other veteran advocates said while personnel from World War II would die off, they would be replaced by aging veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars and new patients from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.”You have guys coming out of Iraq now,” said Jason Kaatz of the Jewish War Veterans of America. “They're going to be looking to get into a facility. Where are they going to be housed?”The panel and Veterans Department officials responded that the final projections had not been released yet. In the meantime, the department has hired the consulting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers to study future demand and recommend what changes should be made, if any, to veterans' hospitals in Brooklyn, Manhattan and St. Albans.One option under discussion for Brooklyn and Manhattan is turning one of the hospitals into a series of small clinics. Veterans groups have said such a move would overload other facilities in the city and would not make the system more efficient. Many Queens veterans alrady travel to the Manhattan or Brooklyn hospitals because they offer specialized care not available at St. Albans. The Queens facility, located on Linden Boulevard, is the only major veterans' hospital in the borough. It is said to be severely outdated.”It's a facility that's literally falling down,” said Chief of Staff Dr. Michael Simberkoff, a vet himself.But other veterans at the meeting said renovations to the building had already been undertaken and that the facility, built by the Navy in the shape of an anchor, was still strong. One warned that asbestos was present in the walls, while another said patients and other vets would not want to move. “This is our house,” said John Bartell, commander of VFW Post 2343 in Maspeth. Among other concerns, the veterans want to make sure the hospital has enough nursing home beds.Price Waterhouse Coopers will also determine if any of the hospital's vacant land should be put to use. If so, area residents want it to go toward community purposes, such as more parkland or a senior center, not private development. But some veterans think residents are still to blame for them being unable to get a city bus stop inside hospital grounds. “I'm against giving the community one inch of land,” Kaatz said. “They've resisted the facility for years and years.”The community did score one victory, however, by getting St. Albans resident Olivia Banks on the panel working with the consulting firm, giving them representation. The next public meeting will be held either in June or July, with initial options for the St. Albans facility slated to be ready in August.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.