Government still operates unneeded veterans hospitals


WASHINGTON -- Even after eliminating half of its hospital beds in the last five years, the federal health care system for military veterans spends more than $1 million a day to operate unneeded hospital buildings, where a dwindling number of veterans receive care in underpopulated wards, federal investigators say.

The Department of Veterans Affairs receives more than $17 billion a year to provide health care to veterans, but it spends one-fourth of the money caring for the 4,700 buildings at its medical centers around the country, the investigators said. Forty percent of the buildings are at least 50 years old, and many are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Federal investigators said that if the government shut down some of the buildings, it could use the money to provide more health care to more veterans in outpatient clinics and at private hospitals closer to their homes. Admissions to veterans hospitals have fallen sharply, because the number of veterans is declining and care is shifting from hospital wards to outpatient clinics.

While Congress is moving to make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to close unneeded hospitals, the agency shows little interest in doing so, and veterans groups, one of the more powerful lobbies in Washington, are resisting.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said in a recent report that it might be in the interest of veterans to close some hospitals, because that would free money to enhance other health care services for veterans.

Veterans groups see the hospitals as a national asset that must be preserved, a lifeline for veterans suffering from severe illnesses and injuries. They say veterans have earned the right to the care.

The veterans department operates the nation's largest health care delivery system, with 172 hospitals, 132 nursing homes, 73 home health care programs and more than 650 outpatient clinics.

Some of the hospital sites, with more than 50 buildings, look like small towns or college campuses. Of the 4,700 buildings, fewer than 1,200 provide medical care to veterans.

But Stephen P. Backhus of the General Accounting Office said the transformation of the veterans health care system "appears to be losing momentum" as the agency postpones tough decisions about closing hospitals.

In a recent speech to the American Legion, Togo West, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, said, "We are closing no medical centers this year. We have no plans to close any medical centers next year."

Pub Date: 8/01/99

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