Group Protests Salary Cuts

A national union is protesting the closing of 30 nursing home beds at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury.

The American Federation of Government Employees said it was recently notified the hospital is shutting down 30 long-term care beds for elderly veterans.

The Hefner VA Medical Center has eliminated 120 nursing home beds over the last several years, said union officials, who blamed federal budget cuts.

"It is shocking that we are turning away aging war heroes because we lack the resources to care for them," said John Gage, president of the Washington, D.C.-based labor organization, in a prepared statement.

A spokesman for the hospital confirmed 30 beds are being taken out of service. That move reduces the number of staffed long-term care beds to about 180.

But he said the action was due not to budget cuts, but to service consolidation and cost-efficiency.

"There's no merit at all to the idea that anything we're doing is related to budgetary issues," said the spokesman, Kris Pettigrew.

He noted there's no waiting list for long-term care beds. He said veterans get the care they need.

Union officials said the lack of a waiting list is misleading, because the VA averted demand through harsh eligibility requirements.

Under current guidelines, veterans aren't eligible for long-term care beds unless their condition stems mostly from an injury or illness suffered while on active duty.

"If you don't accept (most) veterans, you don't have much demand," said David Cox, president of AFGE Local 1738, which represents more than 1,000 of the 1,300 employees at the Hefner VA.

The medical center serves a 23-county area in North Carolina that includes Charlotte and Winston-Salem. It has 159 general hospital beds as well as long-term care and other services.

The long-term care bed reduction is not causing layoffs, Cox said. Workers in the affected ward are being reassigned to other jobs.

But out of concern for veterans, the union issued a news release Tuesday drawing attention to the situation, Cox said.

The union didn't notify the media when beds were phased out in the past, in part because it seemed possible the care might be reinstated, Cox said.

"This is the fourth long-term care unit closed over the last several years, and it's starting to get very alarming to us. It seems like we're going out of the long-term care business," he said.

Last fall, a state agency -- the N.C. Department of Administration's Division of Veterans Affairs -- opened a 99-bed nursing home in a building on the Hefner campus.

The federally subsidized state facility is opening in stages, and now about one-third of the beds are filled, said Wayne Peedin, the division's assistant director.

The state facility has less restrictive admission criteria than Hefner. However, it requires veterans to pay a greater share of the bill, either out-of-pocket or through public or private insurance programs.

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