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Veterans want answers about VA medical care

NEW HAVEN – Military veterans complained Wednesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to provide reasons for suspending inpatient care at its Fort Wayne hospital.

They said rumors and speculation have included the “untimely death” of a patient, “improper care,” “retraining personnel,” “underutilized” space and “a situation where somebody made some wrong decisions.”

“Nobody knew what was going on,” said John Diflauro, an Army veteran and the local veterans employment representative for WorkOne Northeast.

About 50 people attended a town hall meeting Wednesday conducted by national officials for the American Legion, the country’s largest veterans organization. Those officials plan to visit Fort Wayne’s VA Medical Center today and Friday.

VA Northern Indiana Health Care System said Oct. 23 that it had temporarily halted inpatient care at the Lake Avenue medical center for purposes of “improving our processes” and “bettering veteran care.” Since then, VA has appointed a new director for the system and acknowledged vacancies in key medical and administrative positions at the local medical center, which has 26 inpatient beds in addition to outpatient services.

On Monday, a VA spokeswoman said inpatient chemotherapy infusions have resumed, with acute and intensive care likely returning before April. Also, the vacant jobs have been filled on an interim basis.

The town hall meeting at American Legion Post 330 was scheduled before Monday’s developments.

“I’m sure you may have thought, ‘We’re going to lose our hospital.’ That is a great concern,” Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force, told the crowd. The task force visits VA medical centers and reports its findings to Congress.

“There have been so many attempts to close down our hospital” since 2000, said Craig Savage, a Navy veteran from Fort Wayne.

“In the past, they have tried making us just about nothing more than a satellite clinic,” Savage said.

Patricia Allison, an Army veteran from New Haven who is with the Allen County Council on Veterans, said that since 2000, VA “closed the fifth floor, which was the nursing home. They downsized the fourth floor, which was the inpatient care. … When anything happens, immediately the veterans in this community fear that they are going to try to close their VA hospital again.”

New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald said government leaders in northeast Indiana were “quite shocked” about the suspension of inpatient services in Fort Wayne.

“There was no advance notice, no communication whatsoever” from VA officials, he said.

Even a Monday briefing at the medical center “was kind of vague,” said George Jarboe, the county veterans service officer.

A VA Medical Center representative attended the meeting but did not speak.

Veterans agreed that, for the most part, they receive excellent care at the 200,000-square-foot medical center, which opened in 1950. But persistent problems they cited include staffing shortages, high turnover among primary-care physicians, long waits on prescriptions and the routing of telephone calls from the Fort Wayne center to its sister facility in Marion.

“We fought for this country, and we need better care,” said William Vandegrift, an Army vet from New Haven.