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When Navy veteran Joseph Cosentino started meeting with other veterans last February about medical care in the North Country, he says they had a long list of problems. At the top was the need to travel to the VA Medical Center in Syracuse for most services:“A lot of the veterans say we don’t want to go to Syracuse, they don’t do anything for you. They tell you to come back. You go back three or four times.” And the situation’s worse in the winter, Cosentino says, when the three or four hour drive can be treacherous.
Such complaints are familiar to St. Lawrence County Veterans Department head Michael Boprey. And says the long drive time is especially problematic for younger veterans, who are still employed: “Case in point, I’m a veteran, myself. I had to go to see a specialist in Syracuse in August. What that entailed for me was a complete day off of work, drive to Syracuse and back. The provider ran 45 minutes late. It became a full eight-hour day. It gets frustrating.”
There are outpatient clinics for veterans at the hospitals in Watertown and Massena. But they offer limited services, and anything beyond basic primary care that calls for a specialist has to be done in Syracuse.
Cosentino has identified the Pritchard Building at the St. Lawrence County Psychiatric Center as a possible site. And he’s getting some political support. The St. Lawrence County legislature has passed a resolution in favor of the plan.
And when New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is up for re-election this November, was asked about the new hospital during her recent visit to Potsdam, she said it was a “great idea. I’m going to push it, see what I can do. Talk to the VA. And see whether we can do that.”
But Massena Memorial Hospital CEO Charles Fahd says a new hospital doesn’t make sense. He says his and other North Country hospitals are already struggling financially, and competing for patients. Fahd says Massena Memorial has the ability to provide many specialty services veterans need, like MRIs and colonoscopies. But under its contract with the VA, it only gets reimbursed for veterans’ primary care. Fahd wants the VA to approve an expansion of services at Massena:“Rather than spend the money to build, the easier solution to allow us to do as many of those proceduces as we possibly can.”
The Veterans Administration says it’s looking into expanding services at outpatient clinics, and will make recommendations in the coming months. Richard Kazel is manager for medical and surgical services at the VA Medical Center in Syracuse. He says the VA is looking at a variety of new ways to reduce travel time for North Country veterans.
For example, it plans to increase the use of telemedicine, so vets can talk to a specialist without driving to Syracuse.
Kazel says the VA is opening new hospitals, but they’re in Florida and Las Vegas. He says veterans are migrating to the West and Southwest, so it makes sense to increase service in those regions, not in the North Country:“There is no migration of veterans to the north.”, he says, “and at this point in time we don’t anticipate there will be. We cannot build a hospital and have it stand empty. It doesn’t make sense from a business point of view. We have no plan to develop a plan to build a hospital in St. Lawrence County.”
Ogdensburg Navy vet Joe Cosentino counters that St. Lawrence County has nearly 10,000 veterans, and says the tri-county region has close to 60,000.
The VA plans a meeting with to Cosentino and other veterans in the North Country next month. Kazel plans to be there. He says they’ll talk about the types of services, and the best location for expansion. But he doesn’t think Massena is the best place for that. Kazel says he’ll be recommending Watertown.