In a decision that angered many Los Angeles-area veterans, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown announced Monday that the quake-damaged Sepulveda VA hospital will be demolished and replaced with a $65-million outpatient care center.
The 431-bed federal hospital has been closed since the Jan. 17 temblor wrecked operating rooms, knocked out heat and water supplies and littered corridors with broken glass, forcing the evacuation of 331 patients.
Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles, Brown said he decided not to rebuild Sepulveda because the VA must cut costs as it enters the era of managed health care, and because there are more than enough beds to absorb evacuated Sepulveda patients at the big West Los Angeles VA hospital.
Most of those evacuated from Sepulveda have been at the West Los Angeles facility, which has 1,157 inpatient beds, since the quake and will stay there, Brown said. He added that even with the Sepulveda patients, there are nearly 200 empty beds at West Los Angeles.
VA officials had been considering for two months whether to rebuild the 39-year-old Sepulveda hospital, the centerpiece of a sprawling medical complex in North Hills that employs 1,700 and features well-regarded programs in geriatric research and medical education. The cost of reconstruction was estimated at $188 million.
Brown said the VA will spend $50 million to tear down the hospital and repair other structures. It will spend another $65 million to build the outpatient center, which is expected to open by February, 1996, and will expand existing ambulatory care programs.
Brown said a 120-bed nursing home will reopen within six to eight weeks, but a psychiatric ward will be closed.
Many local veterans reacted angrily to Brown's plan, saying it may jeopardize medical care for people who fought America's wars and will badly inconvenience their families, especially those from the San Fernando Valley who will have to drive an extra 15 miles over congested roads to reach West Los Angeles.
"These people are upset because they've taken something away from them again," said Terry Tracy, the American Legion spokesman in Los Angeles. "Sepulveda was kind of their place to go."
"Down at the grass-roots level, we're going to have some people hollering like hell," said Jerry Williams, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "They have this (hospital) close by, and now it's not there."
But a spokesman for another veterans group said Brown's plan will benefit veterans by allowing more of them, especially poor veterans with no service-connected disabilities, to receive care.
"They're probably going to take better care of a bunch of new veterans than they would have if they just built another bed tower," said Dave Gorman, deputy national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans in Washington.
Last week, 21 members of Congress from the Los Angeles area signed a letter urging Brown to rebuild the hospital, saying that "because of the large geographic area, distance, travel time and dense urban population, the other VA facilities in Los Angeles do not have the inpatient capacity to adequately serve" local veterans.
Closure of the hospital, they said, also could damage Sepulveda's research programs and its academic affiliations with the UCLA School of Medicine. Last year, 364 medical residents and interns trained at Sepulveda.
But after hearing details of the outpatient program from Brown in telephone calls Monday, several congressman said they believe the plan makes sense.
Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), whose district includes the hospital, said he agreed with Brown that it would be foolish to rebuild the hospital given the number of unoccupied beds at West Los Angeles.
The extra travel time for Valley-area families, he said, does not represent "an undue burden."
The permanent closure of Sepulveda's six-story hospital would mark only the second time since 1965 that a VA hospital anywhere in the United States has been shuttered. Politically powerful veterans groups and their allies in Congress traditionally have been able to pressure the VA not to cut services.
A VA spokesman said that while blueprints are not final, the Sepulveda outpatient center is likely to resemble the one in Downtown Los Angeles. That clinic features an emergency room, dental services and programs to treat substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Brown acknowledged that demolishing the hospital will strain doctor-patient relationships at Sepulveda. Instead of physicians being able to hospitalize and treat patients there, they will have to send them to West Los Angeles, he noted.
"In terms of quality, we'll lose nothing," he said. "But in terms of a close relationship that our physicians want to maintain with their patients, we're losing something there."
Brown said that Sepulveda doctors, nurses and other staffers "did not accept this news very well" when he briefed them Monday morning.
"They have grown to be very fond of their patients and they want to be able to maintain that close, intimate relationship," he said.
Brown said that of Sepulveda's 1,700 employees, 1,000 will be kept in North Hills and 400 to 500 others will be transferred to West Los Angeles. The remainder will be offered jobs at other VA facilities throughout the country. None will be laid off.