64ºF

VA hospitals could close over budget issues

Budget shortfalls could lead to closures

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The department of Veterans Affairs issued a warning Tuesday, saying that VA hospitals across the country could be shut down unless Congress addresses a $2.5 billion shortfall for the current budget year.

Monday the VA told congress more veterans are coming to them for health care, from April 2014 to April 2015, VA health care sites saw a 10.5 percent increase in workload, and it needs that money to cover the shortfalls.

The VA is also considering other options including furloughs and hiring freezes to keep the centers open.

It's clear something needs to be done, because so many who have served our country said they depend on this hospital for care.

Dennis Jaszka is a veteran who lives in Satsuma and relies on the VA hospital in Gainesville, not just for physical care, but for moral support as well.

"It's priceless because you get treated with respect here. You see a lot of old-timers like us, I guess just hanging out in there you know? It means a lot to us," Jaszka said.

That's why it's hard for Jaszka, a Marine who served in Vietnam, to imagine this hospital being shut down.

"I think it's terrible because you know we need them and we fought for this country and I think it's good for the country that they are open," Jaszka said.

To close the gap, the VA said it wants authority to use up to $3 billion from the new Veterans Choice program, which makes it easier for veterans to get federally paid medical care from local doctors.

Congress funded the program to the sum of $10 billion over three years after major issues at the VA came to light last year.

Lawmakers from both parties said the VA should have told them about the shortfall sooner, and worked to get ahead of the budget issues.

Louis Alexander, another veteran who uses the VA hospitals in Gainesville and Lake City, said he hopes something can be done because of the large communities of veterans that rely on the hospitals.

"I think it would really affect them if they did close, especially the northern Florida, southern Georgia VA hospital out of Lake City. I don't know what (the veterans) would do, especially the larger communities, the retired communities that use the VA," Alexander said.

The VA said it needs congress to act soon. The deputy secretary of the Veterans Administration said if action isn't taken in the next three weeks, there could be drastic consequences.