New Suburban Veteran’s Hospital for Louisville

On Veterans Day, 11-11-11, the Courier-Journal reported on the status of plans to build a new Veterans Hospital for the region of Louisville Kentucky.   The community has been waiting with decreasing patience for the results of all the promises and hearings.  The update did not, however, announce that a final site had been decided, nor that financing was in hand, nor that a start date was known.  Instead, the big news was that the site selection process had decided against leaving the hospital where it is on Zorn Ave, and against moving to the downtown medical center of metropolitan Louisville.   Subsequent notice of new road work near the intersection of the Watterson Expressway and Route 42 suggested that the new VA would be located there.  On Dec 14, we received further official verification from United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, that indeed the 4906 Brownsboro Rd  address is the first choice for the new medical center.  The second choice site is the one Factory Lane near the Gene Snyder Expressway.  It was estimated that from the time financing is secured, construction will take a little more than three years.  The letter from the Secretary appears to be in response to a request from Sen. McConnell for a realistic timeline for the project.  The Veterans’ Day update quoted 5 veterans, 4 of whom expressed disappointment and a preference for staying at Zorn, one of whom was relieved that at least it would not go downtown.

I attended most of, if not all the public hearings held in Louisville since this process began. While it is true that there was a strong (and perhaps sentimental) attachment to the old hospital as being “good enough” for them, the sentiment against moving downtown was equally strong.   At the most recent May 11 meeting, the veterans were still not buying the heavily advertised benefits of a downtown center.  It is fair to say they were vehemently against it.  The veterans worried about traffic, parking, personal safety, and crime; all of which they saw going from bad to worse.  (Their concern is reasonable.)   When a call of hands for those supporting a downtown location was asked for, only 2 hands went in from the large crowd approaching 200.  (At least one of those was a UofL faculty member.)  One Vet expressed the general sentiment that a downtown location would benefit the medical staff and businesses, but not the veterans themselves.   The potential benefit of having UofL doctors available was raised, but there was much grumbling in the audience and comments such as “those doctors don’t want to see you,”    They complained about too many interns and not enough “seasoned doctors.”  There was sympathy for the Green Street Baptist Church that would be displaced by the downtown project.   There was much praise for the current local VA Hospital Director, Wayne Pfeiffer.

Mr. John Dandridge, Director of the VA Region responsible for Louisville, was at the hearing.  He heard first-hand the veteran’s opinions and complaints.  He promised them that their input was valued and that he would present their feelings personally to Secretary Shinseki.   I have no reason to doubt that he did so with the best interests of the veterans in mind.   I think the vets on the whole will be  happy with either of the two remaining suburban sites.  Sadly, it was pointed out that an entire generation of Veterans of World War II will not live long enough to see a new facility anywhere.

While I personally think this a good and just solution, I must confess more than a little surprise.  There was a tremendous push for the downtown location from the University and downtown business communities.  I heard Louisville government officials speak years ago of a downtown location as a done-deal.  Two of our federal representatives recently said publicly that while they had no preference on a specific location but they wanted the project kept moving forward.  Frankly this too surprised me as I know they were heavily lobbied and have a well-coordinated working arrangement with the University to procure earmarks and specific legislation.   However, constituent voters count too!

Of course, the cornerstone is not yet set, and federal agencies know from where their appropriation bread is buttered.  (It would be of interest to see the correspondence that has passed between our city, state, and federal elected officials and the Veterans Administration.)   The Courier-Journal editorial board has already started the drumbeat to reverse the Secretary’s decision.  To me their arguments smack more of reflex boosterism for the downtown core than is merited.  The editorial of November 13 emphasized the presence of “researchers and specialists” at the downtown medical school campus. It somehow characterized the move of other healthcare resources to the suburbs as not a good thing.  Why wouldn’t the public in general want their medical services in the suburbs for the same reasons as the Vets!  I was also struck by the editorial emphasis on the presence of researchers– what should research have to do with it?  The vets are not fodder for the University’s commercial research enterprise.  They deserve the best physicians available wherever they are.  The Courier-Journal should not drink the University-poured Kool-Aid that all the best doctors are downtown at the medical school.  To suggest otherwise is an insult to the many excellent physicians in Louisville, downtown or elsewhere.  I personally judge many of these non-University physicians to be the best in the city in their specialties.  The new location at Brownsboro Rd. is equally convenient to physicians at the Medical School and in the Eastern County.  I urge the Veteran’s Administration to explore new ways of allowing the very best physicians and other medical providers we have to offer to serve our veterans.  It’s the least we can do.

Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Dec 14, 2011