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Health, Science & Environment

Veterans concerned about recommendation to close Chillicothe VA Medical Center

Building 31 at the Chillicothe VA is home to the facility's urgent care as the wellness and recovery center.
Terry Dowdy
/
Submitted Photo
Building 31 at the Chillicothe VA is home to the facility's urgent care as the wellness and recovery center.

Updated: May 20, 2022, 10:25 AM ET

A nearly 100-year-old VA Hospital in southern Ohio could soon close its doors but Ohio U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman told veterans at a recent roundtable discussion they will fight to keep the Chillicothe VA open.

Brown and Portman joined the Secretary of Veteran Affairs Denis McDonough at the historic facility on April 29 for a tour and to talk to vets, who are very concerned the VA is on the chopping block.

It's been a familiar landmark on State Route 104, just outside Chillicothe for nearly 100 years. It was once the home to Camp Sherman, a World War I military installation. The health facility that now serves veterans from 17 counties in Ohio and West Virginia could close by this time next year.

Watch: The History of Camp Sherman in Chillicothe from WOSU's Columbus Neighborhoods

“I served 30 years, my younger sister served 30 years, I have another brother who served 30 years and another brother who served six years so we are definitely military people, “ said Patty Hamilton of Circleville.

Hamilton's connection to the military began with her father a veteran of the Vietnam War. He didn't want his children to serve but four of them answered the call. The family military tradition continued with Hamilton's husband and son.

“We all rely heavily on Chillicothe VA it has 308 acres not only is it a beautiful campus the VA owns that they're talking about moving it and paying for more land which doesn't make any sense, “she said.

And other veterans agree. Retired Air Force Veteran Jeremy Parkens is Executive Director of Dress Right Dress, a non-profit that helps veterans transition back into civilian life.

“What people are missing out is yeah, I can go to Adena Health (a hospital in Chillicothe) and I can go to all these other medical providers, but in the VA system is veteran specific care. So they understand that diagnosis and the illness. Not just that, you know, granted, the VA has its flaws, but when I go to the Chillicothe, the VA, I'm talking to other veterans that I know, “ Parkens said.

A nationwide study conducted by the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission (AIR) of all 171 VA facilities across the country could seal the fate of the historic site.

The report found that “The Chillicothe VAMC is not optimally located because it is about 60 minutes south of Columbus, the largest population center in the state."

It also said experts predict a sharp decrease in beds needed for inpatient acute care services at the facility.

Chillicothe now serves some 20,000 people every year. The report predicts patient counts will drop by 15% by the end of the decade.

The recommendations include “modernizing and realigning” the Chillicothe VAMC by establishing collaboration and seeking out community partners, relocating services to future VA facilities, including a proposed Circleville site and a new Chillicothe site.

After our story aired, officials with the VA shared the following statement.

“VA is committed to staying in all its healthcare markets.,“ the statement said.

When asked about a recent closure of a nursing facility at the Chillicothe VA they also had this comment.

"The closure of Sherman Terrace CLC is not related to the AIR Commission. This is a temporary closure due to staffing issues and is not expected to last more than 120 days,“ officials said in the statement

Without the Chillicothe facility, Parkens and other vets would have to travel to VA facilities in Dayton, Cincinnati or Columbus for care.

He said the hours and hours of travel would cause his family a tremendous hardship.

“So with my service connection and stuff, if I drive three hours I'm down for two days like making that kind of drive is physically takes a physical toll on me to do that. So and I'm in my 40s So now we look at the older generation of veterans, Vietnam, Korea, etc. And you're asking these people to drive where some of are already driving an hour and a half, “ Parkens said.

Another big concern with the potential closure is easy access to mental health treatment. Ross County Veteran Council Secretary and Air Force veteran Terry Dowdy questions the federal government's commitment those vets.

“I'm afraid we got a lot of veterans or highly suicidal family members, especially in these rural areas cannot afford all that travel time in the money it would take if they closed down the nursing home or the CLC (Community Living Center). As we got here, they were shipped off to Dayton that's another hour-and-a-half drive, “ said Dowdy, who we met in the VFW parking lot as he was returning from the funeral of a World War II Veteran.

At the local Amvets hall in Chillicothe, Vietnam veteran Kenneth Rosenberg sipped a beer at the bar. He worked at the VA for more than 30 years. The now retired physician assistant said he too is concerned about those who rely on the VA for mental health counseling.

“That's the only psychiatric hospital for miles and miles around you know people are going to have to drive from here to kingdom come to get any treatment for their psychiatric disability or whatever but they had only satellite clinics you know if they close those up to be kind of a problem, “ Rosenberg said.

Jessica Fee has worked for nearly two decades at the VA and is worried about the economic impact of the closure.

“My fear is this as they start moving the patients away they're going to start moving our jobs away, “ she said.

Fee is now local president of the American Federation of Government Employees. She advocates for 1,400 workers currently at the facility and worries about the ripple effect that could be felt throughout the area.

“It's a good job and when they come into Chillicothe they're buying gas, they're eating here, they're shopping here so it's going to be a huge impact our businesses here in Ross County economically our small businesses I'm afraid will suffer,” she said.

Melissa Huggins, the owner of Ivy's Home and Garden in downtown Chillicothe said her small business has just now started to rebound after the pandemic shutdown and is concerned about the possible closure of the VA.

“Well I certainly think it would impact the business because then we wouldn't have you know as many people that would be able to come shopping they wouldn't have as much disposable income as what they normally had, “she said.

For Patty Hamilton the bottom line is there is no replacing the VA. The healthcare services they provide are essential for veterans.

A decision on the fate of the Chillicothe VA is expected by March 2023.

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Health, Science & Environment ChillicotheVA Hospital
Williams joined the WOSU newsroom from the WLKY-TV in Louisville, KY, where she was a reporter. Natasha is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and has more than 20 years of television news and radio experience. Contact Natasha at natasha.williams@wosu.org.