This evening, April 18, the VA Hospital Site Selection staff held a public hearing at Kammerer middle school to update the selection process, and to hear comments from interested citizens. It was an interesting affair to say the least.
The session was held in the school’s gymnasium and was heavily attended. The crowd was in a rare, if not hostile mood. The presentation included at least as much of the usual bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and procedure that frustrated people. It did not help that things started very badly from a technical perspective. The VA team’s own wireless microphone had failed, and the school’s public address system produced only unintelligible sound. Things eventually got a little better and extra time was allowed for questions in this 2 1/2 hour session.
I rather expected that the room would be packed with current veterans, but this did not appear to be the case, and only a few spoke. Of course, all who made comments made reference to their own veteran status or that of their family members. Most of us can point to the veterans in our family and we all certainly want our veterans to have access to the quality health care they deserve. With those preliminaries out of the way, the 800-pound gorilla in the room was concern about the impact of increased traffic in an intersection that is already acknowledged as overloaded. There were concerns that the studies by consultants that concluded that any increased traffic could be mitigated and managed may have been based on faulty car-counts. It was easy to make the case that traffic is bad there, and there was no offsetting discussion about how things might be improved. There was an obvious disparity between what various studies and projections said about the traffic situation and the experience on the ground by the residents.
Other concerns that were raised about locating the hospital at the Brownsboro Road site included privacy concerns for the neighbors, light pollution from tall towers, safety issues for the many school buses servicing the six schools in the area, the fact that the 35 acres available seemed pitifully small for such a facility compared to the size of sites used for other recent VA hospital construction, flooding and drainage issues, lack of any room for expansion, the threat of taking by eminent domain for future growth, the fact there is only a single access point for the landlocked plot, and air pollution from the many idling cars and ambulances.
Quite a few rational comments were made regarding the superiority of the St. Joseph site on Factory Lane, largely because of its much larger 99-acre size. Room for hospital growth and for the addition of other related Veterans Administration facilities would be available. One speaker suggested building the hospital on existing government-owned land currently occupied by the Army Reserve on Dutchman’s Lane. There are, however, apparently only three alternatives still in the running: a downtown location is not one of them. The alternatives are the Brownsboro Road site, the St. Joseph site, and an option to take no action at all.
There was still a bit of wishful thinking about staying at Zorn Avenue. Concern was expressed by at least two leaders of statewide veterans organizations that we have already had enough delay, and that we were at risk for losing federal support for the entire project unless we get on with it. There were a handful of speakers advocating for a downtown location. I did not admire the motives of all of these. One relatively young veteran who worked downtown and looked forward to quick trips to the hospital after lunch commented that the older generations “have had their time,” and that any new hospital should meet the needs, including the convenience, of the new generation. There was concern about how veterans who do not drive or who might be disabled mentally or physically would get to the hospital. It was mentioned only in passing that this hospital serves a huge area of southern Indiana and Kentucky. It was not made clear how convenience to downtown Louisville measures against convenience for out-of-towners who rarely go to the big city!
Not surprisingly and perhaps predictably there was some antipathy expressed towards the current owners and developers of the Brownsboro land. One commenter wanted to know why, if this was a non-political decision, that the developer had “Washington lobbyists?” People wanted to know who financed the traffic studies. People wanted to know if some sort of land swap for the current valuable Zorn Avenue Veterans Hospital was part of the arrangement. Neither was the crowd in the mood to hear opinions from those who were not opposed to the Brownsboro site. One resident who said that he would prefer a hospital there instead of the inevitable shopping center was booed lightly by his neighbors.
The evening ended as badly as it began. The session was never designed to provide answers to any specific questions. In fact, there was downright hostility that promised responses to questions and concerns voiced at an earlier session were not made as promised, and that by the time responses to today’s session became available, the land would have already been purchased and the die cast. There was a bit of Alice in Wonderland logic to it all. Nonetheless, I had a good bit of respect for the VA team who kept their professional demeanor throughout in the face of repeated outbursts from the audience. Surely at least one thought for their personal safety must have flashed across their minds. They deserve a stiff martini tonight at Louisville’s best hotel for their effort (at the discounted government rate of course).
In my thinking, this is as difficult a decision as a community gets to make. I do not think there is any one correct solution, only trade-offs. When I think of how long and difficult this VA project has been, and of how long the Ohio River bridge project has been stalled by division, I despair that we will lack the will as a community to address the issue of medical care for our disadvantaged that has dominated these pages the last months. I need a sign that will make me into more of an optimist!
Peter Hasselbacher, MD
April 18, 2012
Handout used at hearing.
Slides used at hearing. (One St. Joe. slide missed.) 2.6 MB
Programatic Environmental Assessment. (PEA) and Appendices. (VA Website)
Programatic Environmental Assessment (KHPI Website) 2.3 MB