KINGSTON, NY – Elected officials and veterans advocates gathered at the Ulster County Office Building on Saturday to denounce the Veterans Administration’s recent proposal to close Castle Point VA Medical Center in Wappingers Falls in Dutchess County.
County Executive Pat Ryan, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army, was among the lawmakers who criticized the decision. He was joined by U.S. Representative Antonio Delgado, Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, State Senator Michelle Hinchey and Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro.
Speaking from a podium placed at the center of the Ulster County War Memorial site, Delgado outlined details of the proposal which would see the hospital replaced by an outpatient clinic. Inpatient services would be moved to another VA facility 27 miles south of Montrose in Westchester County, Delgado said. He added that the proposal also calls for services to be transferred to providers and community partners, touting greater convenience.
“I really struggle to understand what it means to improve convenience in our rural communities where access points to care are already limited,” Delgado said.
Molinaro, who is seeking Delgado’s seat in Congress, released a statement after the rally. “What kind of government pushes those who defend its very existence to fight to preserve the basic care that they have more than won? A cruel one,” the statement read. “We have to tell President Biden, Antonio Delgado and the VA this is not progressive, this is cold and cruel. We demand better.
Ryan said the proposal would see a full hospital replaced with an outpatient clinic similar to the one VA has tucked away among the many big box stores on Frank Sottile Boulevard in the city of Ulster. He said such a facility, known as a “CBOC,” has only basic services such as primary care, lacks extensive mental health or addictions services, and has no pharmacy.
Ryan said he doesn’t know what will happen to the dozens of elderly veterans living at a community living facility in Castle Point, but he believes they will be moved to the Montrose VA facility.
“Imagine getting this message: You’re an aging veteran, you’ve served your country and you’re being told you’re displaced, totally uprooted,” Ryan said.
He added that transporting veterans from the area in need of care, which he said was already a nightmare, would only get worse with the closure of Castle Point.
Many veterans in the United States struggle not only with their physical health, but also with their mental health, Ryan said, adding that 22 veterans die by suicide a day in the United States. He also said the decision to close Castle Point was based on a backup argument. money sends the message “we really don’t care, we’re turning our backs on you” to veterans.
Ryan hailed President Joe Biden’s efforts to finally recognize the hotbeds and other dangers facing post-9/11 veterans, echoing Vietnam veterans‘ fight to have Agent Orange declared unsafe, but he had a question for VA officials: “Where the hell are we going to get the care for these services,” Ryan said.
Ryan, said he was there for a fight of months or even years to keep Castle Point open and improve services there, noting that about half of Ulster County veterans who use the VA use Castle Point with the other half using the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany.
“A lot of South County veterans, myself included, rely on Castle Point,” Ryan said after the rally. He estimates the closure would affect thousands of veterans in the central Hudson Valley.
Air Force veteran Gavin T. Walters Sr., director of the Vet2Vet program at the Hudson Valley National Veterans Rehabilitation Center, said Castle Point provides a unique environment and care tailored to veterans. which cannot be found elsewhere.
“It took me a while to get into the VA,” Walters said, fighting back tears. “I don’t think I’ll go to the VA anymore if he leaves.”
He said the canteen offered the best food and was a place to strike up conversations with other veterans and build friendships.
He credited Castle Point with saving his life. “Suicide was a conversation I was just having on my own,” he said. That changed, he added, when he was able to talk to providers who offered a relationship beyond just care.
He wondered if the voices of veterans like his really mattered to VA officials.
Jessica Bugbee, an Army Paratrooper who served with the 82nd Airborne from 2003 to 2015 and is now a Peer Specialist in the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Program, said Castle Point played a key role in helping her navigate the long COVID in 2021. She said Castle Point helped her get tested, adding that doctors, including pulmonologists and cardiologists, provided phenomenal care when her symptoms set in. are sufficiently aggravated to warrant admission for four days.
“I was in a large, luxurious room with a view of the Hudson,” Bugbee said, adding that she was vegan and had her dietary requirements met.
She praised the follow-up care she received after her release and added that she continued to receive help with the many medications she had to take as she suffered from lupus. Bugbee said she also attends a holistic health program at Castle Point.
Bugbee said she doesn’t understand why the VA is so keen on sending veterans to outside providers who aren’t as familiar with the complex conditions they face. These providers also lack an understanding of the unique military culture and cannot create a comfortable and safe environment for veterans, she added.
“It was very difficult for me to walk into a facility and then get help and talk about the issues that are deep inside me,” she said.
Photos: Rally in Kingston to protest proposed closure of VA facility in Dutchess County