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Witness Testimony of Mr. William M. "Bill" Detweiler, American Legion, Past National Commander

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

The American Legion appreciates this opportunity to testify this morning before the Field Hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on veterans health care in Southeastern Louisiana, and the need to rebuild the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) New Orleans without further delay.

Mr. Chairman,  during my brief oral testimony this morning I will make several recommendations on behalf of The American Legion, for consideration of the Committee as you consider the actions necessary to restore veterans health care in this area to a level that is second to none. I would request that you allow the filing and acceptance of my written testimony with attachments for the record and for the later consideration of the Members of the Committee.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

The American Legion has taken a strong stand on the rebuilding of the VAMC New Orleans in the downtown area of the city. During its recent State Convention, June 8 -10, 2007 in Alexandria, La., The American Legion, the largest veterans service organization with over 29,000 members in Louisiana, unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the rebuilding of the VAMC New Orleans in conjunction with the development of the bio-medical district in downtown New Orleans.

CURRENT STATUS OF VETERANS MEDICAL CARE

Despite the heroic efforts of Mr. John Church, the Director of the VAMC New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, it was quickly determined  following the flooding that  the hospital was beyond repair and would have to be replaced. The American Legion extends its sincere thanks and appreciation to Mr. Church for his leadership in the successful evacuation of the patients in the face of the approaching storm, and his heroic efforts to protect the staff and people who were trapped by the flooding in the hospital after the storm.

Within a short time after the storms, clinical services were restored to the upper floors of the Lindy Boggs Building where hundreds of patients are now provided with daily outpatient treatment and care. We are most grateful to the Department of Veterans Affairs for the re-establishment of these services and the opening of new outpatient clients in the Greater New Orleans Area.

However, those veterans that require hospitalization can not be treated in the immediate area and must be sent to other facilities were beds can be found, including but not limited to, Shreveport and Alexandria, Louisiana,  and  Jackson, Mississippi,  Unfortunately, The American Legion does not see an early end to this manner of care for these veterans.

As an example if the veteran is diagnosed at the VAMC outpatient clinic with a psychological problem that requires hospitalization, the staff must process the veteran for transport; then transport the veteran to the hospital with the available bed; and  process the veteran through the admittance to the hospital. Usually this process takes from 10 to 12 hours, from diagnosis to admittance in the receiving hospital.

 Such a long tedious process causes extreme stress to the veteran as well as to his or her family, further aggravating the veteran’s mental condition. We suggest, Mr. Chairman, that the PTSD problems and other brain injury conditions evidenced in our returning servicemen and women from the current conflict, will only increase, placing a greater burden on our already depleted system.  A new VAMC New Orleans is urgently needed.

But how do we solve these problems and restore the proper level of medical services to the veterans of the 23 parish (county) catchment area of the VAMC New Orleans? The American Legion suggests that you consider the following recommendations in your deliberations relative to veterans health care in this area. 

ASSOCIATION WITH MEDICAL SCHOOLS

The veterans of the 23 parishes (counties) of Louisiana that form the catchment area for VAMC New Orleans have enjoyed the benefits of the VAMC’s partnerships and associations with the LSU and Tulane Medical Schools since it was established.  The VAMC New Orleans serves the medical community of this area as a teaching and research hospital, just as the other veterans hospitals do throughout the VA medical system.  Our veterans like those in other parts of the United States benefit from these associations, because the hospitals in the VA system need the interns, residents and doctors from the schools to augment the VA hospital staffs. Each year Tulane and LSU Medical Schools rotate a hundred or more interns through the VAMC New Orleans, providing our veterans with the best of care, based on the latest discoveries in medical science.

Currently we have a shortage of medical professionals in Southeast Louisiana and the Greater New Orleans Area. Many of our doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, who left the area after Hurricane Katrina, have not returned. The location of  the VAMC New Orleans in the downtown area, in walking distance and close proximity to the Tulane and LSU Medical Schools, has allowed the staffs of the medical schools to easily move between the campuses of the Medical Schools and the VAMC, all for the betterment of our veteran patients. Thus, the Medical Schools provide the additional staff that is critical to the successful operation of the VAMC. In addition, the continued research, that is conducted by the medical schools, provides the patients at the VAMC with medical care that is second to none.

We have just learned that yesterday, Sunday, July 8, 2007, Dr. Paul Harch, a physician specializing in Hyperbaric Medicine at LSU Medical School,  journeyed to Washington at seek support with other doctors of similar specialties,  from Congress for a pilot project that will treat traumatic brain injury. An appropriation request is before Congress to fund a scientific study to be overseen by the Samueli Institute in Washington, D.C., with Dr Harch serving as the physician in charge. Further, the proposal is for Charity Hospital New Orleans (LSU Teaching Hospital) to serve as the primary site in a multi-center study that will include VAMC New Orleans. Dr. John Mendoza,  a VA Neuropsychologist   and Dr. Tim Duncan of the VA staff, are working with Dr. Harch on this project.  This is just one example of the close working relationship that has existed between the VAMC and the medical schools, a relationship that needs to continue.

To build the new VAMC in an area that is not in the immediate proximity of the two medical schools would not be in the best interests of our veterans, nor the VA medical system. To do so would diminish the care that our veterans rightfully deserve and affect the ability of the VAMC to attract a qualified and efficient staff to properly operate the hospital. In short building of the VAMC anywhere, but in downtown New Orleans near our two medical schools, would not allow for the hospital to provide the level of care needed to properly treat our veterans. Our veterans would be the losers and that is unacceptable.

TRANSPORTATION

The veterans that use the VAMC New Orleans are generally veterans who do not have medical or health insurance. Many are on fixed incomes and have no place else to seek medical care. The relocation of the VAMC in downtown New Orleans will provide a hospital that is convenient, by public as well as private transportation, allowing easy access by our veteran patients, the hospital staff and the hundreds of volunteers who help care for these men and women on a daily basis.

A VAMC located in downtown New Orleans will allow the patients, staff and volunteers from throughout the 23 parish (county) catchment area to access the hospital by major roadways and interstates; local and regional bus service; and rail.

NEW ORLEANS MEDICAL DISTRICT INITIATIVE

The American Legion suggests that the U S Department of Veterans Affairs and the veterans who rely on the VAMC New Orleans for medical services, inpatient as well as outpatient services, will benefit from the location of the VAMC within the area of the New Orleans Medical District. This district was established prior to the storms and has now been reconstituted to include a cooperative effort on the part of major medical institutions and agencies in the area. Our veterans and the community would benefit from the building of a joint facility with an LSU teaching hospital, with join common facilities, such as laundry, labs, etc., with separate towers for medical treatment. The American Legion endorses such a joint facility, with the proviso that the veterans will be treated in a separate hospital building and not mingled with other patients.

We suggest that the State of Louisiana is on the right course at this time, having provided the funds to purchase the property, the planning and the design of  the LSU hospital in the recent legislative session. We urge this Committee to push forward with the location and building of the VAMC without further delay.

We believe, as expressed in a copy of the article “A Marriage Made in Hell, “ which appeared in the November 2006 issue of The American Legion Magazine that we have an opportunity to rebuild the VAMC and do it right. We believe that our veterans will benefit, if the VA commits to the vision of Ms. Julie Catellier, the current Director of the VAMC New Orleans, as she expressed in referenced article, to wit:

 “It’s the VA’s desire to be the engine that drives health care in the city of New Orleans and the metropolitan area. We want to be leaders. We want to provide a futuristic, high-tech, high-touch institution for veterans, in collaboration with our affiliated partners.” (Page 58) A copy of the article is attached and made a part of this testimony.

The American Legion believes in Ms. Catellier’s vision.

Having the VAMC downtown would also allow for a close relationship with the planned and funded cancer center and “wet lab” facilities which benefit our veterans with the latest methods of cancer treatment and gene therapy.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT FOR THE DOWNTOWN LOCATION OF THE VAMC

The American Legion is pleased to have community wide support for the relocation of the VAMC in downtown New Orleans, including but not limited to the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana, the New Orleans City Council, the Downtown Development District of New Orleans, the Regional Planning Commission (Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany Parishes), US Senator Mary Landrieu and other members of the Louisiana Congressional Delegation. Copies of available resolutions and letters of support are attached hereto and made a part hereof.

SUMMARY

The American Legion urges the Committee to move forward and allow the VAMC New Orleans to be rebuilt for the benefit of our veterans without further delay in downtown New Orleans. It is a win-win situation for our veterans and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. As Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-La) said in a hearing before this committee in May 2006, in commenting on the rebuilding of the VAMC New Orleans, “From an efficiency standpoint, it makes sense,…from a fiscal standpoint, it makes sense. And from a moral standpoint – after everything these Gulf Coast veterans have endured with these storms – it makes sense. This is a historic partnership for historic times.”

Mr. Chairman I again extend the sincere appreciation of The American Legion for the opportunity to testify and submit our written testimony. I would also request that we be allowed to amend this testimony, if permitted and in a reasonable time to be set by you, Sir, if we receive any additional information, that we believe might be helpful in your deliberations. We look forward to continuing to work with you and your committee for the welfare of our nation’s veterans.

Thank you!