Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (from Sen. Brown’s website.)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has proposed closing its hospital in Chillicothe as part of a system-wide review to streamline services. The facility serves a broad swath of Appalachian Ohio. In its place, the VA plans to build an outpatient clinic nearby and rely on larger facilities in Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati handle excess traffic or services the clinic can’t provide.
Senator Sherrod Brown, D-OH, is doing his best to push back on the plan. The VA released its recommendations last month, and they now go before a bipartisan Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission established by the 2018 VA MISSION Act signed into law by President Trump. Congress and the current President both have a chance to weigh in as well before the VA goes forward.
“Why would you come into one of the best mental health services anywhere in Chillicothe — why would you disrupt that?” Brown said after a recent roundtable. “Why would you take these services away and force veterans, many of whom are older and unable to travel as far, to drive to Dayton?”
As the VA’s report portrays it, Chillicothe’s hospital is a casualty of an unfortunate set of circumstances. Built in 1938, the facility is aging. Despite renovations in 2012, the building needs about $75 million in improvements. Meanwhile, the report says, other facilities aren’t far away and local needs are declining.
“The Chillicothe VAMC is not optimally located as it is an estimated 60 minutes south of Columbus, Ohio, the largest population center in the state,” it reads, before continuing, “the enrollee population in the Chillicothe area (Ross County) is projected to decrease by 8.5% to 3,196 enrollees by FY 2029.”
Jessica Fee, who serves as president of the local union representing the 1,400 workers at the hospital, argued that underplays their reach.
“We reach all the way to Washington County and Marietta,” she said. “We cover a 17-county catchment area of southeastern Ohio.”
Looking at that broader population she said they have more than 28,000 veterans enrolled.
Fee takes issue with how the VA’s report depicts the state’s geography. She explains lumping the southeastern region of the state together with Columbus gives a distorted view of how many medical options are available.
“We’ve included the 18 hospitals in Columbus Metro into your seven hospitals in southeastern Ohio, and now we say there’s community services available because we just take 18 and add seven,” she said. “Well, that data doesn’t work geographically when you’re driving from Athens, Hocking, Vinton, Jackson, Scioto, Pike Counties.”
The VA’s recommendations wouldn’t abandon the region, but it would dial services back significantly. The proposal would build a new standalone nursing home, known as a community living center, half an hour north in Circleville. That facility would serve about half the people currently using the same program in Chillicothe. The remainder would go to Dayton.
For medical services, the VA proposes replacing the hospital with a new outpatient clinic with a broad range of specialties including physical therapy, vision and hearing care. The report notes the hospital doesn’t have a surgery program currently and in-patient medical services are on the wane.
Fee doesn’t oppose adding those clinics, but she doesn’t see them as a replacement for the hospital. It’s also not lost on her that the facilities meant to pick up the slack shift care north and west — away from Appalachia.
Brown’s visit to Chillicothe marked the second time this month the senator has visited to raise awareness about the VA’s recommendations.
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