Facing a $3.6 million budget cut for the next fiscal year, the Van Zandt VA Medical Center may downgrade its 24/7 emergency room to a center for urgent care that would be open only during business hours.
The hospital also plans to reduce its staff of 600-plus by about 30 workers through attrition and has tabled plans to open outpatient clinics in Huntingdon and Indiana, spokeswoman Andrea Young said Tuesday.
Hospital Director Tony Bennett outlined the potential cuts - designed to deal with a likely 4 percent budget shrinkage for 2012 and the probability of additional cuts later - during an employee "town hall meeting" July 29, Young said.
"This is all preliminary," she said. "We don't have the final numbers yet."
The possibility of the emergency room downgrade upset some employees, many of whom are "passionate" about the service and concerned for patients who may worry about getting bills if they must seek emergency care at community hospitals, Young said.
Currently, Veterans Affairs covers bills at community hospitals in areas where VA emergency services aren't available, but that policy would come under review
if Van Zandt downgrades,
Because dropping emergency services would be a major program change requiring approval by the VA central office in Washington, it would take many months to happen - probably through fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1, Young said.
The regional VA headquarters in Pittsburgh is imposing the deepest funding cuts on hospitals like Van Zandt that don't offer the more complex services, Young said.
The VA's current emergency room is Level 3, offering the least complex service menu, Young said.
The Van Zandt ER deals with cuts, scrapes and stitches but sends more serious or complex cases to Altoona Regional Health System, Young said.
Currently, when a veteran comes with a emergency that needs referred, he may actually delay getting the help he needs, she said.
Bennett proposed an urgent care center that would provide service from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Some employees suggested staying open later in the afternoon.
"Those are all decisions [to be made] much higher than our level," Young said.
Urgent care centers are even lower on the complexity scale than the Van Zandt ER.
To neutralize potential consternation among employees and residents who have seen numerous construction projects at Van Zandt, Associate Director Charles Becker pointed out that the VA pays for them from a separate pool of money, Young said.
Those are necessary projects, including a new, two-stage $3.5 million addition currently under construction to double the space for physical medicine and rehabilitation, Young and Becker said.
"All the projects we are doing are focused on [transforming] a 1950s hospital infrastructure to offer a safe environment for providing treatment to our residents and patients," Becker said.
Like all federal employees, the Van Zandt staffers will receive no cost-of-living raises for 2012 - after receiving none this year, Young said.
The Van Zandt operation already includes outpatient clinics in Johnstown, DuBois and State College, Young said.
The administration still plans to relocate the cramped DuBois operation, she said.