Full service VA hospital sought in St Albans

After listening to the needs of veterans – and determining that the projected decline in their population is “ridiculous” – local politicians are urging the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to build a full-service hospital on the site of the St. Albans Community Living Center.

Congressmember Gregory Meeks has even said that he will attempt to block the project by denying potential zoning changes having to do with non-veteran housing.

In his letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Congressmember Gary Ackerman requested a halt to plans to redevelop the property and asked that a new study surveying the health needs of local veterans be conducted.

“I am concerned that the current St. Albans facility, under the VA’s Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) plan, would be inadequate for the burgeoning needs of returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans,” Ackerman wrote. “The EUL process should be suspended until an appropriate study of veterans needs is conducted, and a plan for a full-service Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) at St. Albans is developed.”

“The goal of the EUL is to provide new state-of-the art facilities for veterans at the St. Albans Community Living Center,” said Jennifer Sammartino, Public Affairs Officer for the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System, which St. Alban’s Community Living Center is a part of. “Veterans using the St. Albans campus will continue to receive the same health care services they are currently receiving but in a modern health care facility. The EUL process is ongoing and no further action has been taken.”

“The EUL process was never to consider a full-service hospital there,” said VA spokesman John Mazzulla, who said that veterans’ numbers are projected to decrease through 2020 and the needs of veterans returning currently are “not sufficient” for an acute-care hospital.

Last year the Veterans Administration selected St. Albans Village LLC from a pool of four after a Request for Proposals (RFP) in April 2008 to develop the site, with an up to 75-year lease.

St. Albans Village LLC, as a development team, consists of D&F Development Group; GGT Development Group, with which Reverend Edwin Reed is associated; and Holland Horizon.

Peter Florey, principal with D&F, explained to The Courier at the time that the project consists of two elements: the health care of veterans and a new community, low-density, park-like setting.

The 55-acre site on Linden Boulevard, said Florey, will be divided roughly in half, and a “significant portion will continue to be dedicated to health care purposes for veterans. All services currently provided will be replaced with new, state-of-the-art facilities.”

“For the long-term needs of veterans, it is important that we have a state-of-the-art health care facility,” said Reed. “The EUL allows for the most facility, with the least amount of money, with support from the private sector. The numbers of veterans do not support a full-service hospital. It is critical in this economy that we think differently and aggressively in terms of delivering services.”

Ackerman did point out that the present St. Albans facility would be modernized with funds gained by leasing 25 acres of the property for private development. But despite the funding, the proposed new facility would still be unable to provide the full-range health services of a VA Medical Center, he said.

“Are the numbers really correct? Are we counting the men and women returning to the area, people from other locations who need the facility,” asked Meeks. “Right now veterans have to go to Fort Hamilton or Manhattan. The community really wants a full-service hospital and I am committed to this.”

According to The United Coalition of Veterans and Community Rights (UCVCR), there are close to 61,000 vets in Queens County and an additional 68,232 vets in Nassau County for a total of 129,081 veterans who would use a full service hospital in Queens.

Ackerman panned a 2006 Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) report, which, he said, noted a projected decline in veterans population in the New York Metropolitan region, based “on data now more than seven years old.”

He also said that the report did not take into account mental health services, nor “the unique health needs of Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans.”

“It is imperative that veterans have premier and accessible health services at St. Albans,” said Ackerman. “The VA must not move forward with its plans until we are assured that Queens and Long Island veterans will have a St. Albans VA facility capable of meeting all of their health needs. It’s something they desperately need and rightfully deserve.”