A health care center in Amherst that offers therapy and camaraderie to local veterans is shutting down one month earlier than planned, over the objections of veterans' families and members of Congress.
Local Veterans Affairs officials in July had informed the 108 veterans who receive treatment at the VA's Adult Day Health Care program that the clinic would close by Oct. 1. Now, family members say, VA administrators say the clinic in the Northtown Plaza will close at the end of this week, making it harder for them to find an alternative provider for those services.
"We're not getting any kind of assistance or guidance, really, on where to go," said Kim Baglio, whose father, Ron Kraft, an Air Force veteran, is a patient in the program.
This accelerated closing comes even as WS Development, the plaza's owner, has offered to let the VA clinic stay rent-free for six months.
Both Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, are pressing the agency to reverse its decision. But VA officials are sticking to their plan to shutter the clinic, saying it's the best of the options the agency reviewed and it will allow veterans to efficiently receive the treatment they need.
"While change is difficult for our current ADHC patients, transitioning to community contract providers will assure the long-term availability of ADHC services for hundreds of veterans in the future," Michael Swartz, executive director of the VA health care system in Buffalo, said in a letter to Carolyn Bermingham, whose husband, Michael, is a clinic patient.
The VA's Adult Day Health Care program moved from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo to the Northtown Business Center, 3131 Sheridan Drive near Bailey Avenue, in 2011.
An average of 37 patients per day use the center, coming in twice a week for physical and occupational therapy in group settings. The center also provides a rehabilitative care for veterans with Alzheimer's or dementia.
Family members of veterans who receive treatment at the center say it provides valuable medical services along with group bonding that veterans couldn't get elsewhere.
The VA's five-year lease for the space ended in April 2016 but the agency has remained there on a month-to-month basis. The agency last month informed veterans the clinic would close, saying the move would happen by Oct. 1.
The VA said it determined it would be most cost-effective to close the clinic and to serve veterans at private providers.
The closing leaves veterans and their families scrambling to find replacement care, and some told The News they have received contradictory information about when the clinic will close and when they need to have a new provider in place.
"I'm confused," Bermingham said. "Most of us are bewildered about this whole situation."
Baglio said many of the alternative programs suggested by the VA don't offer the same therapy her father relies on at the clinic, nor are they as convenient.
"You can't tell me there's nothing in this area," Baglio said, referring to new potential clinic sites. "There's so many vacancies."
Evangeline Conley, a VA spokeswoman in Buffalo, said VA staffers are working with veterans and their families to find the best private providers as quickly as possible. "Limited clinic operations will continue in September while most of the patients will be transitioned to the community by the end of this month," she said.
Conley said the clinic was forced to move because WS Development planned to demolish the building either late this year or early 2019 as part of its transformation of the Northtown Plaza.
However, Brian Sciera, senior vice president of leasing for WS, said the company has no immediate plans to tear down the building. In fact, Sciera and WS have made an offer to let the VA clinic stay in its current space for six months with the agency responsible only for utilities, taxes and other operating costs.
Conley said a review of the real estate market in Amherst and nearby communities found leases costing three times what the VA pays now. However, Higgins' office cited a Congressional Research Service report that found, in 2015, VA-operated adult day health care programs cost an average of $120.53 per visit, while VA-contracted programs cost $132.40 per day on average.
Higgins held a news conference outside the clinic last Thursday. Speaking with family members and veterans' advocates, Higgins said the agency didn't fully consider all of its options before deciding to shutter the center. He followed up with a phone call to Swartz and the VA's regional administrator.
“We have spent the last several weeks trying to understand the VA’s decision to hastily close the doors on a program that has worked effectively, and there is no clear or logical explanation,” Higgins said.
Conley said the VA is reviewing Higgins' arguments and the rent-free offer from WS, but gave no indication the agency would reverse its position.
"We're looking into the information that was presented," she said.