Veterans who have been fighting for several years to get a full-service hospital at the the St. Albans VA site have gained yet another powerful ally, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens and Long Island), who this week pledged his support in keeping private development off federal land.
“It is imperative that veterans have premier and accessible health services at St. Albans,” Ackerman said in a statement. “The VA must not move forward with its plans until we are assured that Queens and Long Island veterans will have a St. Albans VA facility capable of meeting all of their health needs. It’s something they desperately need and rightfully deserve.”
Ackerman joined veterans and their advocates for a two-hour meeting on Friday, during which they explained the enormous need for a hospital to cater to vets in Queens and Nassau counties so they don’t have to travel to Brooklyn, Manhattan or Huntington, LI for care.
“We presented him with the facts and he said he was willing to support us,” said Andrea Scarborough, a member of the United Coalition for Veteran and Community Rights and the wife of Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica). “It was a very productive meeting. I’m glad that we met with him, and I’m glad that we have an advocate in the congressman.”
If the VA’s plan is approved, St. Albans Village, LLC, will replace existing facilities at the site with a new nursing home, psychosocial rehabilitation domiciliary and expanded outpatient facilities. In exchange, the company will get a long-term lease on 25 acres at the site, which it can then develop.
In a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, Ackerman said he is troubled that the VA is proceeding with what is called the enhanced use lease process without a comprehensive study of the healthcare needs of current and future veterans.
In its Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services report released in 2006, the Veterans Administration cites a projected decline in the New York metropolitan-area veteran population as the main reason why a hospital is not needed at St. Albans.
Ackerman noted that the report relied on data which is now more than seven years old and did not take into consideration the unique health needs of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I do not understand how any rational study could have led to the conclusion that demand for mental-health services will significantly decline in the coming years,” Ackerman wrote. “All evidence suggests Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans will require a significant increase in VA mental-health services.”
Vietnam Veteran Steve Epps said that while the St. Albans VA site is in Congressman Gregory Meeks’ (D-Jamaica) district and the UCVCR has gotten his support, he can’t stop the EUL process alone, that’s why the group is so pleased that Ackerman has joined the crusade.
“We want the support of the entire Queens delegation and then we will branch out from there,” Epps said. “It will be like a ripple effect. We will start inward and work our way outward.”
Epps called Ackerman “positive, encouraging and genuine.” He also praised him for pointing out that the 2006 CARES data is flawed and demanding a more accurate assessment of veteran’s health issues.
“We are going to continue to fight until the veterans in Queens and western Nassau County get the best care,” Epps said. “We deserve it, and we’ve earned it.”
On Jan. 21, City Councilman Mathieu Eugene (D-Brooklyn), chairman ofthe VeteransCommittee, held a hearing, during which members introduced Resolution 218 calling upon the state’s congressional delegation to urge the VA “to completely renovate and utilize the existing St. Albans site and provide a full-service VA hospital with an emergency room, a primary and extended care facility for female veterans and a comprehensive treatment facility with domiciliary for homeless veterans.” It was to have gone before the full council for a vote on Wednesday.
Scarborough said the UCVCR will join other veterans’ organizations to take their crusade to Washington, DC in the coming weeks, where they plan to picket Shinseki’s office and lobby Congress to get the private development of the St. Albans site stopped. An exact date for the trip has not been set yet.