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Changes to VA hospital still upset veterans

LISA: After several months on hold, the Department of Veterans Affairs has resumed plans to make changes at the VA Hospital in Salisbury. During a press conference this morning, Deputy Under Secretary William Feeley acknowledged that pressure from veterans, hospital employees and local officials influenced the decision: Feeley "Things evolve over time, based on feedback. And we've gotta be flexible and adaptable. So as the feedback came in, it was clear this was the right thing to do. So plans change." LISA: Joining me now to discuss those changes is WFAE's Julie Rose who was at that briefing in Salisbury. So Julie, what has changed? JULIE: Primarily the timeline. Originally the VA said it would shut down the emergency room at the hospital in the near future. Now that will happen in 2013. The same goes for intensive care and surgery that requires a longer hospital stay. LISA: So four years from now, where will veterans go if they need those services? JULIE: The VA plans to contract with private hospitals for that kind of treatment. Which is really the sticking point for veterans in this whole process. They really like the treatment they get at the Salisbury hospital. I spoke with Ivan Ward this afternoon. He's a veteran in Kannapolis. Earlier this year he went to the Salisbury hospital with a bleeding ulcer: WARD "I didn't know what was wrong with me when I went there. But I knew that if I went to a civilian hospital, then I would be waiting for hospital. When I went to the VA they immediately took me in and started treating me. If they close that emergency room, I think we've been screwed." LISA: He obviously feels very strongly about any changes to the VA Hospital. But there are 23-counties that feed into the Salisbury center. So wouldn't it actually be more convenient for some veterans to go to their local hospital? JULIE: That's exactly what the Department of Veterans Affairs argues. In fact, the deputy undersecretary Mr. Feeley said repeatedly at the press conference today that these changes are meant to improve access to health care for veterans. And the VA actually plans to expand the hours and services offered at its health clinics in Charlotte, Winston Salem and Hickory. But for emergency care, veterans will have to go to a private hospital. But the challenge is the VA will only cover that tab if it's a true emergency. As you know, a lot of people go to the ER for stuff that could be taken care of in a doctor's office. Which means veterans could be left holding a bill if they go to a private hospital for something that doesn't qualify as an emergency. That's one reason why the Director of the Salisbury hospital told me she's pleased with this 4-year delay. Her name's Carolyn Adams: Adams "Part of what we're planning is the education of our veterans. And now we have this time span to work on how you would get into the system and the process. And also what care you would have here and when you should seek emergency care." She says she'll be holding a lot of town hall meetings with veterans over the next four years to make sure the changes go smoothly. LISA: But Julie, we've also recently learned that President-elect Obama is planning to appoint a new Secretary of Veteran's Affairs. How might that impact these changes? JULIE: I asked the Deputy Undersecretary that very question and he said the current Secretary felt it was important to get this plan underway because he believes it's best for veterans. But the new Secretary could scrap it all if he disagrees. And I also spoke with Congressman Mel Watt who represents the Salisbury area. He has serious concerns about the changes, but says he's pleased he'll now have four years to scrutinize the plan before it takes effect in 2013. LISA: I guess we'll have to wait and see. Thanks Julie.