McALLEN, RGV – The Department of Veterans Affairs has again rejected calls from veterans to build a VA hospital in the Rio Grande Valley.

In a letter to Emilio de los Santos, director of veterans’ affairs in Hidalgo County, Robert A. Petzel, the Under Secretary for health in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA would rather continue to contract with two private hospitals in the Valley for inpatient care and emergency room services.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is addressing the full service inpatient and emergency health care needs of veterans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley through contracts with two of the Valley’s high-quality private hospitals,” Petzel wrote, in a letter dated Sept. 21, 2012.

“The contract provides inpatient (including mental health) and emergency room services for veterans at seven locations in the area. The initial experience with this new model of health care delivery has been very encouraging.”

Valley veterans groups beg to differ. Their leaders say that too many Valley veterans still have to travel to the VA hospital in San Antonio for treatment. They also say that the number of veterans visiting the two private hospital groups – Valley Baptist Healthcare System and South Texas Health System – has far exceeded projections, resulting in the VA failing to pay for veterans’ health in a reasonable time. They still back a VA hospital in the Valley.

“The VA needs to support HR 2065 and provide construction funding for healthcare expansion at the Harlingen VA Medical Center,” de los Santos told the Guardian. “The healthcare expansion is direly needed to provide adequate access to health care to our veterans and avoid eight- to ten-hour round trips to San Antonio VA hospital.”

Valley veterans are angry at the time it takes the VA to respond to their letters. Petzel’s Sept. 21 letter was made in response to a letter de los Santos sent to VA Chief of Staff John R. Gingrich. “They take forever to respond but we will not give up. We will continue the fight for a VA hospital,” de los Santos told the Guardian.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has told VHA to compare demand for inpatient and emergency room care at VA contract hospitals in the Valley with actuarial projections from a Booz Allen Hamilton study.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has told VHA to compare demand for inpatient and emergency room care at VA contract hospitals in the Valley with actuarial projections from a Booz Allen Hamilton study.

Valley veterans’ leaders point out that an estimated 115,000 veterans reside in the 24 counties south of San Antonio. “This number continues to increase daily as veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war return home. Yet, military veterans in this region who require hospital care must travel 300 miles to Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital in San Antonio,” de los Santos said.

De los Santos said it is costing the VA about $40 million a year for the contracts it has with STHS and VBHS. “Please review and consider cost analysis pertaining to hospital contract expenditures for VA Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System which indicates that the VA is spending a substantial amount annually. In five to six years of contract expenditures the requested healthcare expansion would have paid for itself,” de los Santos said, in a letter sent to Gingrich on Jan. 17, 2012, in reference to the building of a VA hospital in the Valley.

De los Santos concluded his letter to Gingrich by stating: “Veterans from Deep South Texas have fulfilled their commitment to serve and defend our nation. It is past time for our nation to fulfill its commitment to provide our veterans with a reasonable access to VA health care.”

The determination of veterans o continue the fight for a VA hospital for the Valley was evidence at the funeral service for Vietnam War veteran Arturo “Treto” Garza in La Feria two weeks ago. Veterans’ leaders made a point to expressing their resolve to Ana Garcia, Valley district director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, at the funeral.

“Definitely, the fight will continue. We just told Ana we are going to put Treto to rest and then we will continue,” said Vietnam War veteran Pete Garza.

“Treto set high standards so now for the rest of the vet community to live up to those standards. As far as the veterans’ hospital is concerned, we see light at the end of the tunnel and we cannot leave unfinished business. Most definitely the fight continues,” said Mike Escobedo, a pall bearer at Treto Garza’s burial.

In a Feb. 16, 2012, letter to de los Santos, Lawrence A. Biro, network director for the VA’s VISN 17 Health Care System, said the services provided to veterans at VBHS and STHS was top-notch.

“Combined, these two community hospital systems provide the Rio Grande Valley veterans with seven points of access to inpatient care across the entire Valley market sector,” Biro wrote. “This action has resulted in the highest level of inpatient and emergency room access within the VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network.”

Biro said that while he was “encouraged” by the “initial outcomes” of the VA’s expansion effort in the Valley, the VA’s leadership “recognizes the potential for growth of the veteran population in this market requires a continual reassessment of our future expansion plans.”

Biro added that since actuarial projections from a study by Booz Allen Hamilton was a “key factor” in the VA’s decision to contract with STHS and VBHS, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has directed the Veterans Health Administration to “closely monitor the actual demand for inpatient and emergency room care at the contract hospital systems in comparison to the actuarial projections from the Booz Allen Hamilton study.”

And, in his Sept. 21 letter to de los Santos, Petzel said the VA would “continue to closely monitor and reassess the needs of veterans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley for both outpatient and inpatient services. “Should evidence indicate a change in course is required, we will consider all viable options and keep you informed.”