Veterans from across Chester County united in solidarity with locals at City Hall on Monday.
During a standing-room only “listening session” on the future of the Coatesville Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Caln Township, veterans submitted questions for consideration to the staff of U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th of Easttown, who hosted the event.
The facility is known locally as simply the Coatesville VA.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced in March a slated plan to potentially close the Coatesville VA, as well as 16 additional medical centers for veterans in the country, including one in Philadelphia.
“This is the beginning of a proposal, not the end of a process,” Houlahan said while addressing the public during the listening session.
Nearly 20,000 veterans from the region visit the Coatesville VA annually. Veterans travel even from Delaware for the services there.
The Coatesville VA is historic — on the top of a hill overlooking the city, the medical center is a beacon of hope and place of compassion with 1,300 employees.
Of the 1,300 employees, one-third are veterans. The Coatesville VA, 1400 Blackhorse Hill Road, is one of the largest employers in Chester County.
Veteran John Murphy attended the event. He’s a member of the Hillside VA Association in Chester County.
He was an active member of the U.S. Marines Corps from 1959 to 1962. Murphy served overseas in Thailand. He also spent 18 years in the Reserves.
He said if there are plans to expand services, that should happen at the Coatesville VA location, rather than decentralize services, such as mental health support, elsewhere.
“If they are going to expand, they outta expand on the open acreage that they have,” Murphy said.
Veteran Mike Klaene served in the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1968. He was injured during that time during his service overseas.
Of the Coatesville VA’s value to the community, Klaene said, “They provide an essential service to veterans and the community. And the downsize is, they are not a full-service medical facility. They do not have surgery. They do not have cardiology. There are a lot of things that do not exist there.”
He continued, “Instead of tearing it down, what they should do is take what we got and make it better.”
Klaene said through eminent domain the government could take over the now vacant Brandywine Hospital and then offer surgery and other medical services to veterans while keeping the Coatesville VA open offering mental health and other wellness program that are presently key to the lives of many individuals in the area.
“Politically I don’t know if that’s something that can be done,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be done but are not politically enabled.
Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest population of veterans in the nation. Pennsylvania is home to nearly 800,000 veterans.
The Keystone State is also home to 2.2 million senior citizens, individuals 65 or older.
“We veterans are a fragile community,” said one man whilst addressing Houlahan at City Hall.
“The politics of it is going to interfere with the care of our veterans,” Mark Bailey.
“Where are our veterans gonna go?” Bailey asked the congressional representative.
Houlahan has invited Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough to tour the Coatesville VA in order to see firsthand the work achieved there.
Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to determine which VA facilities should potentially close occurred in 2019.
Last fall, Tower Health announced the closures of Brandywine Hospital and Jennersville Regional Hospital. Despite public outcry, Tower Health closed both facilities, shutdown Jennersville on December 31 and Brandywine on January 31.
With the loss of two key medical hospitals in the region, the medical services offered at the Coatesville VA are more vital now than ever.
If the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs does opt to close down the historic Coatesville VA, citing outdated infrastructure, for one, there is no guarantee that the construction of a new facility shall happen in the city.
The Coatesville VA opened in 1929 and has been serving American veterans since World War II.
With an annual operating budget of approximately $184 million, the Coatesville VA’s nearly 1,300 employees in 2021 included 180 nurses and 35 physicians.
The Coatesville VA has 302 operating beds, 148 residential rehabilitation treatment program beds, 126 community living center beds, and 28 mental health beds.
In 2021 there were 204,654 outpatient visits and 1,237 hospital admissions at the Coatesville VA.
Via virtual care, the facility also completed 47,686 Telehealth visits and 31,157 Telemental health care visits in 2021.
“When I heard about the proposed closure, I was rocked, to be frank,” said Houlahan prior to the event on Monday. “I’ve spent countless hours at the Coatesville VAMC with veterans and the dedicated staff who support them, and I will not stand for any loss of accessible, quality care.”
After winning her bid to join Congress in November 2018, Houlahan joined veterans in Coatesville for Christmas dinner.
“As the Biden Administration considers this proposed closure, I want to hear from members of our community so I can in turn share our stories down in Washington,” Houlahan said.
Houlahan is a third-generation veteran. She served in the U.S. Air Force.
“Veterans represent the best of our nation, and they deserve our care once they return home from war — a terrible reality we are seeing play out on televisions across the world right now.”
Coatesville City is undergoing a renaissance with angel investors supporting the revival.
Coatesville is the only city in Chester County. The poverty rate is estimated at 33 percent.
Yet the Coatesville VA, high on the hill just outside the city, remains a place of hope, compassion and pride. And as one of the city’s most enduring landmarks, the veterans know they have advocates and rights available to them that they need — right at home.
Approximately 20 veterans commit suicide every day in America.
Houlahan has written to McDonough, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, expressing concerns regarding the proposed closure.
“Our veterans and their families are concerned, and we are concerned for them,” she said.