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Veterans, congressman say shutdown of VA center without replacement is unacceptable

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

A center providing healthcare assistance, physical therapy, meals and a social setting for local veterans is scheduled to close at the end of September. Clients of the VA Adult Day Health Care facility on Sheridan Drive in Amherst say they're being forced to find alternative care arrangements. They'd rather see the services moved to a new location. One local Congressman has sent a letter to the VA Western New York Healthcare System seeking answers.

The Adult Day Health Care center, located in the Northtown Plaza, provides services including physical and recreational therapy, medication management, meals, care for patients living with dementia, support services for loved ones and, as one of its clients explained to WBFO, a place where veterans can be with other veterans, in the care of those who better understand the needs of veterans.

"It's like a family," said John Augspurger, an Army veteran who attends the center.

The center is slated to close by October 1. In a letter written to clients by the VA Western New York Healthcare System in July (see image below), it was explained that the VA's lease is expiring at the location and the building itself is scheduled for demolition. The building, along with others in the Northtown Plaza, are coming down as part of a plan to redevelop the entire property as a "lifestyle center" with newer, upscale shops and other businesses (Whole Foods is already located on the plaza grounds).

According to that letter, social workers will assist clients to find "community contract providers" nearby - preferably closer to their homes - to continue services. The VA would continue to pay for those services. 

Augspurger invited WBFO into his home to discuss his worries - and his anger - about the decision to shut down the center. WBFO asked him what the VA has told him about what comes next, and whether anyone at the center has offered any hints.

"Nothing. They don't know," he replied. "Even the nurses and everybody that helps us."

He was then asked if he felt they truly don't know or if he suspects they've been instructed not to say anything.

"I don't know. That's the thing."

Augspurger received an anonymous one-page flier from a volunteer at the center (WBFO also received a copy from the relative of another client, who asked to remain anonymous). That flier included contact information for officials at the VA and to Congressman Brian Higgins' office. 

Higgins wrote a letter to Michael Swartz, executive director of the VA Western New York Healthcare System, expressing his concern for the shutdown and asking questions, including whether there were any inquiries about moving into a new space in Northtown Plaza and whether there was any exploration of nearby properties that would serve as an affordable, acceptable new location.

Credit WBFO file image
A copy of a letter announcing the pending closure of the Adult Day Health Care facility in Amherst, forwarded to WBFO by a relative of a veteran served by the center. The relative asked not to be publicly identified.

Higgins told WBFO there are plenty of properties in the general vicinity which are suitable.

"I think that's the transition that should be looked at," he said. "Not a transition that dramatically changes the level of service that this program provides. In fact, I am encouraging that they enhance the services, even if it has to be at a new location somewhere in the general vicinity."

Augspurger, though, is skeptical of the words he has heard or read from elected leaders.

"It's no action," he said. "They give you a good spiel but say absolutely nothing."

WBFO received an email following the release of this story from Evangeline Conley, spokesperson for the VA WNY Healthcare System, explaining the estimated cost of a similar nearby facility would run much higher than the lease at Northtown plaza. 

The message reads: "A preliminary estimate for comparable space in the greater Buffalo market, which is inclusive of the town of Amherst, was $306,000 annually, with a one-time additional build out cost of $346,000.  This is three times the current annual lease cost."

The VA, in July, estimated about 110 veterans are affected and eligible for transition to other providers covered by the VA system. Higgins, meanwhile, estimated about 250 individuals utilized the center last year.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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