Dozens of Brooklynites gathered at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on the edge of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights to demand the health care institution for Kings County veterans be saved, after the federal Department of Veterans Affairs made clear in a report that it intends to eventually close both the Brooklyn and Manhattan VA hospitals, and consolidate their services into other facilities.
Veterans, elected officials, and advocates say that the plan would needlessly make it harder for vets in the New York metropolitan area to access vital health care that the VA provides.
“I’ve been coming to this hospital since even before I got out of the Army,” said Danny Friedman, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Brooklyn chapter, in a speech to rallygoers. “This thing’s gotta stand, we have to stand with it.”
The recommendation to close the hospitals came in a report from the VA officially released on Monday. The report notes that the veteran population within the New York City market has been slowly declining over time, with VA health care enrollment in Kings County projected to decline by 20 percent from 20,484 in Fiscal Year 2019, to 16,043 in Fiscal Year 2029.
Overall, the scheme intends to shift VA resources away from New York City and the northeast towards areas like the Sun Belt, where many veterans have relocated to in recent decades, seeking a warmer climate.
It also notes that the Brooklyn VA is located in the southwestern tip of the borough, within the Fort Hamilton military base and relatively difficult to reach, especially by mass transit, while most enrolled veterans live in Central or Eastern Brooklyn. It describes the Brooklyn VA, built in 1950, as an “oversized, aged facility” facing “reduced demand.” Annual operating costs total over $16 million, while the facility itself has nearly $500 million in outstanding capital needs, according to feds.
The plan calls for establishing a partnership with local Brooklyn hospitals or hospital networks to provide the health care currently proffered at Fort Hamilton, moving some VA programs to other facilities in the area like St. Albans in Queens, and eventually closing the facility. The VA also proposes building a smaller, outpatient clinic more centrally located in the borough.
The VA runs a nationalized health care system catering to the nation’s veterans, who suffer a unique range of health concerns, especially mental illness, upon returning home from war and thereafter. Local veterans say that despite feds’ claims, the Brooklyn facility remains a critical point of access for necessary care for the borough’s bravest.
“Seven years ago this VA saved my life. There’s no question about it. I would not be here without this VA,” said Mickey Wedlock, a Marine Corps vet who lives in Bay Ridge, who said his family has been utilizing the Brooklyn VA’s services since it opened. “This place is busy, they’re all busy. We can’t just close places and try to fill it in in other places. It doesn’t work out like that.”
The plan also calls for closing the Manhattan VA after establishing a partnership with a local hospital network and to potentially build a new facility, as well as to “realign” Staten Island’s VA clinic with the New Jersey market after the Brooklyn VA closes. The VA wants to keep its St. Albans campus but build a new hospital on-site to replace the 74-year-old existing facility; the Bronx VA would also be modernized under the plan.
US Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, whose district includes Fort Hamilton and the doomed medical facility, and who organized Sunday’s rally, believes the move by the feds would be a betrayal of those New Yorkers who valorously served their country.
“Under no circumstances, under zero circumstances will we accept this proposal to close this hospital,” Malliotakis told the crowd. “Our veterans didn’t fight overseas to come home and now have to fight for their health care, did they?”