HARLINGEN, August 30 - U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is pushing Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to add in inpatient health care at the new VA Health Care Center in Harlingen.
The Harlingen center is lacking two components that prevent it being turned into the veteran’s hospital that South Texas veterans have campaigned for over the past five decades – inpatient care and an emergency room.
In a letter to Shinseki, Cornyn noted that South Texas has one of the highest per capita levels of veterans in the entire nation. He pointed out that even the VA’s own estimates put the number of veterans in the region at 117,000 veterans.
“These veterans demonstrate a high demand for VA health care services, yet their inpatient needs are not being met by the existing VA facilities,” Cornyn wrote.
“The brave veterans of Far South Texas have risked their lives to preserve the precious freedom of their fellow Americans, and in return we have a solemn obligation to honor their service and sacrifice by providing the full range of health care services they need, including full-service VA inpatient care.”
Cornyn’s letter comes just a couple of weeks after U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison visited McAllen for a groundbreaking ceremony for a new VA outpatient clinic. At the event, Hutchison said the VA’s expansion in the Rio Grande Valley was a “down payment” on a VA hospital for the region.
Hutchison and Cornyn recently introduced the Meeting the Inpatient Health Care Needs of Far South Texas Veterans Act (S. 369). This bill directs Shinseki to incorporate a full-service inpatient health care facility into the existing VA center in Harlingen.
Groups like America’s Last Patrol and the American GI Forum have mounted a noisy campaign for a veteran’s hospital in the Valley, pointing out that other regions of Texas and the nation with smaller veteran populations have a VA hospital. The nearest VA hospital to the Valley is in north San Antonio. It can take four or five hours to drive to this facility from parts of the Valley.
To reduce the number of veterans having to travel to San Antonio for inpatient care, the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System has entered into contracts with South Texas Health System and Valley Baptist Health System. Many veterans have preferred being treated at these facilities than having to travel to San Antonio. However, the two private hospital systems have complained that the VA takes too long to pay their bills. Arturo ‘Treto’ Garza, a former co-commander of the Veterans Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley and a regular columnist for the Guardian has said demand for services from veterans at the two private hospital systems has far exceeded the expectations of the VA. “This is further proof we need a VA hospital in the Valley,” Garza said.
Two other South Texas veterans who have been pushing for a VA hospital in the Valley, Dan Ramos and Placido Salazar, recently inquired whether a new $750,000 medical ambulance bus that can transport nine times as many patients as a regular ambulance could be used to transport veterans to San Antonio. The medical ambulance bus has been acquired by councils of government in South Texas for major natural disasters.
“The VA does provide regularly scheduled mini-buses. However, sometimes the veteran’s schedule cannot be adjusted to the bus schedule. Therefore, some veterans have to travel by private auto,” Salazar said.
“The $750,000 vehicle represents a huge investment of taxpayer money. Just have it sitting there, waiting for a hurricane or other natural emergency, which could be years in coming, is wrong.”
Salazar added: “Of course, the best option continues to be a full-service 24/7 VA hospital. It should have been built long ago. We need to provide the top-quality medical care our Valley veterans need and have earned.”
Here is Cornyn’s letter to Shinseki:
August 30, 2012
The Honorable Eric Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
I write in support of the addition of a full-service Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) inpatient health care facility at the VA Health Care Center in Harlingen, Texas.
Far South Texas has one of the highest per capita levels of veterans in the entire nation, and the VA has estimated that more than 117,000 veterans reside in this region. These veterans demonstrate a high demand for VA health care services, yet their inpatient needs are not being met by the existing VA facilities. As additional veterans from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan return home, the need for VA inpatient services will only grow in the coming years.
While I am pleased the VA has expanded the overall health care services in the region, I strongly believe more must be done to properly care for those veterans in Far South Texas who need VA inpatient health care. To that end, I urge you expand the VA Health Care Center in Harlingen to include a full-service VA inpatient health care facility. In addition, as the VA reviews and prioritizes projects through the Strategic Capital Investment Planning process prior to submission of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget request, I ask you to ensure that the addition of an inpatient facility in Harlingen is made a high priority.
The brave veterans of Far South Texas have risked their lives to preserve the precious freedom of their fellow Americans, and in return we have a solemn obligation to honor their service and sacrifice by providing the full range of health care services they need, including full-service VA inpatient care.
Thank you for your attention to this matter and for your service to our nation’s veterans.
United States Senator