Veterans in Queens and Nassau County are celebrating a victory as the House of Representatives passed the Veterans Care Act on Tuesday, an amendment to a military appropriations bill that would block privatization planned for part of the St. Albans VA site.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), who introduced the legislation along with Rep. Peter King (R-Nassau), said “it will prevent the fabric of my community from being destroyed by the creation of high-density residential and retail developments,” adding that it “does not meet the needs of veterans and therefore should be stopped immediately.”
The bill passed by a vote of 411-5. It will go before the Senate soon, according to Candace Sandy, a spokeswoman for Meeks, but she did not give an exact date.
Many veterans and their advocates have long opposed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ St. Albans project, in which a private developer would replace the existing facilities with a new nursing home, rehabilitation domiciliary and expanded outpatient facilities in exchange for a long-term lease on part of the site, where it would put up housing and stores open to the general public.
Opponents, however, are against any lease to a private entity and instead want a full-service hospital there, so servicemen and women in Queens and Nassau counties don’t have to travel to Brooklyn, Manhattan or Suffolk County for care.
In its Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services report, released in 2006, the VA 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.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens and Nassau) has 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.
“Where is the Veterans Administration’s common sense? To give away this property, which is intended and secured right now for our veterans, is a huge mistake, based on a report that is already discredited by the facts,” Ackerman said in a prepared statement. “This is something that we can't allow to continue.”
Ackerman further stated that all evidence suggests that returning veterans are going to require a greater significant increase in care, especially mental health services. He cited a Rand Center report which found that 18.5 percent of all U.S. service members who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that 19.5 percent suffer from traumatic brain injury.
“The VA continues to review the draft development plan for the St. Albans campus,” Jennifer Sammartino, a spokeswoman for the agency said Wednesday.
Retired Army Sgt. Marvin Jeffcoat, a resident of Woodside and the former commander of the Queens County VFW, said Wednesday that he was “ecstatic,” that the bill passed and looks forward to being able to get treatment closer to home, if the VA opens a full-service hospital.
“I am very pleased that Meeks turned around to our point of view and that he was able to enlist the help of Congressman King and get enough support from the New York delegation in order to get the resolution passed,” Jeffcoat said. “In view of the current war, it’s an adjustment to the VA structure that makes sense. I want to praise Meeks and King for their bipartisan effort. It just underscores the point that we were right all along.”
Andrea Scarborough, a member of the United Coalition for Veterans and Community Rights and the wife of Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica), was “thrilled” that the bill passed, but acknowledged that the fight is not over. It still must get through the Senate, and the VA still has to agree to build a full-service hospital.
“We’re not done yet, but we are moving in the right direction,” Scarborough said. “We are hopeful that, God willing, it will pass through the Senate without a problem.
“It’s a good day for our vets and a good day for our community,” Scarborough continued. “The community would have definitely been hurt by the VA’s plan.”
Vietnam veteran Steve Epps called the decision “a step toward saving the community and helping us get adequate vet care,” but added “We still have a fight on our hands.”