VA plan to move services protested
Lansing resident Mike Howell said a proposal to move inpatient psychiatric services for veterans from Leavenworth to Topeka made him do something he hadn't done in 40 years.
The senior vice commander of the Lansing Veterans of Foreign Wars post joined a picket line Monday afternoon, Jan. 16, outside the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leavenworth to protest the plan.
"It's just terrible what they're proposing," said Howell, who was joined by about 20 other protesters, most of them from veterans advocacy groups.
"Our problem is that Topeka has a need for more psychiatric beds, but Leavenworth has a need for the beds as well," said Sandy Bond, president of National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1765. "That's very unfair for our veterans who have those needs."
Taking the 14 psychiatric beds from the Leavenworth VA to Topeka's Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center would be a move of efficiency, said Jim Gleisberg, public affairs officer for Eastern Kansas Health Care System, the management firm that oversees the two medical centers.
"We can increase and provide better services in Topeka. That's the bottom line," Gleisberg said.
The VA is going to need as many psychiatric inpatient centers as it can get as more veterans return from the Iraq war with mental problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, said Harvey Nicholson, a Lawrence area service representative for Kansas Vietnam Veterans of America.
"We don't know what is going to happen," Nicholson said. "If you think PTSD was bad in Vietnam, I think it is going to be our No. 1 biggest problem from the fallout of this war."
An advisory board formed a few years ago by Eastern Kansas Health Care was scheduled to meet privately Wednesday afternoon at the Lawrence Public Library to discuss the psychiatric bed issue. It was unclear whether the advisory group would vote on the plan, but the final decision will be made by Eastern Kansas Health Care and Veterans Integrated Service Network Division 15.
Serving on the advisory board are union representatives including Bond, representatives of veterans organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, and others. Also serving on the board are members of the staffs of Kansas' congressional delegation.
The advisory board decided a few years ago to move the inpatient psychiatric services from Leavenworth to Topeka, but that move never materialized, Gleisberg said. Because of a continuing budget crunch, the issue is being revisited, he said.
A VA cost-and-efficiency study conducted a few years ago recommended combining the two services at Topeka. Since that study, it has been difficult to recruit nurses to the Leavenworth VA hospital, Bond said. Gleisberg didn't disagree.
The Leavenworth VA at one time had 21 beds for inpatient psychiatric services. It has since been cut to 14 because of a lack of available nurses for hire in the Kansas City area, Gleisberg said. Bond noted another recent order that the beds be cut to 10 as of Jan. 1.
"In Leavenworth, 75 to 80 percent of the patients we treat have a psychiatric diagnosis, so for them to say we don't need inpatient psychiatric beds in Leavenworth is ludicrous," Bond said.
Topeka has a capacity for nearly 80 beds in its psychiatric center, Gleisberg said. About 40 of them are now being used, he said.