Elected leaders want answers about Salisbury VA hospital changes

Written by David Whisenant

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - Angry veterans and a congressman demanding answers was the buzz around the Veteran's Administration in Salisbury on Wednesday.

WBTV News was first to report a week and half ago that the hospital announced it was closing its emergency room and stopping all in-patient care.  It took hundreds of veterans and local leaders by surprise.

Vietnam Vet Zane Robertson is upset.  Like hundreds of other veterans, he says he was ambushed by the VA's decision to shut down the ER and stop in-patient care at the W.G. "Bill" Hefner VA hospital in Salisbury.

The VA won't say why the decision was made, but that they will contract with local non VA hospitals for emergency services and in patient care.

The VA says that will mean better care, but many veterans disagree.

"There's no doubt we're going to get a bad deal. We're losing a vital part of our services, our emergency room and in patient care, that's vital," one vet said.

Now, 12th District Congressman Mel Watt is asking the VA about the decision.

"Right now, what I'm trying to do is get to the bottom of this and see if their is any rational basis for what's being proposed and I don't think there will be," Watt said.

He sent a letter to Secretary James Peake asking three specific questions:  What is the impact on the quantity and quality of services? What is the impact on the workforce? If emergency room visits are contraccted out to non VA facilities, would veterans be subjected to long wait times before they receive care?

Zane Robertson says he hopes Watt can get answers, but he and other vets are making their own efforts.

"If we don't get petitions up and get them signed and get them into Washington, D.C., we're doomed, we're in trouble," he added.

Congressman Watt says he hasn't heard from the VA Secretary, and he said frankly, he may not.  Watt claims that the Bush administration is dragging its feet on a number of issues, hoping to ride out the last few months of its term and let it be a problem for the next administration.

We found out Senator Elizabeth Dole has also written to the VA Secretary about the changes in Salisbury.

The VA is planning to upgrade and expand clinics in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Hickory. They plan on using the Salisbruy VA for outpatient and long-term care.