State officials weigh changes for chronic disease hospital for veterans

Rocky Hill — A proposal to downgrade the chronic disease hospital at the state Department of Veterans Affairs' Rocky Hill campus to a skilled nursing facility has some worried about the potential impact to care and the possible displacement of patients.

"We were promised as soldiers if we made it out of this war, we would receive free medical for life. And then somebody is sucking that away," said Nukilwa Taquilaya, 77, an Army vet who has been a patient at the facility for nearly five years. ". ... When you say to a veteran, a nursing home, we feel like the federal government is reneging on the obligation that we receive quality health care for life."

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled his budget last year, it included a proposal to change the license of the Sgt. John L. Levitow Healthcare Center, a 125-bed facility that provides care to veteran patients with chronic and disabling medical conditions, from a chronic disease hospital to a skilled nursing facility. The proposal ultimately was approved in the budget passed by the state General Assembly during the 2017 special session, according to Chris McClure, spokesman for the governor's budget office.

Malloy's proposal largely was based on the current needs of the patients served at the Levitow center, according to McClure, and the license change was estimated to save $2 million. The change was slated to take effect in 2018, but now officials are looking at a few different possibilities: keeping the facility as a chronic disease hospital, changing it to a skilled nursing facility or operating it as a dual-license facility.

The state DVA is advocating for it to be operated as a dual-license facility. The department is leading a working group, involving officials from the Department of Public Health, Office of Policy and Management and Department of Social Services, to study the idea.

"If done properly, it would be a good approach to provide a continuum of care, we think at a savings, but without compromising the care provided to our veteran patients," newly appointed state VA Commissioner Tom Saadi said by phone Wednesday.

Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, has introduced legislation to restore the $2 million cut and keep the Levitow center as a chronic disease hospital. Reached by phone Tuesday, Godfrey said the bill would help raise the issue of the dual license.

Several people spoke against the proposal to change it to a skilled nursing facility during a Feb. 16 hearing of the Appropriations Committee. Taquilaya, the Army veteran, then detailed how he had a serious complication after his gallbladder operation and "had a stomach pump that only a chronic disease hospital with adequate personnel, such as doctors and nurses, were able to take care of me."

He also explained how he developed an infection from a knee operation and went into a coma.

"If I had been in a nursing home, I would not be here today," he told members of the Appropriations Committee.

Denise Bystrek, a nursing supervisor with DVA, testified that veterans rely on the facility for treatment of several debilitating medical conditions in combination with post-traumatic stress disorder, "and this care is being provided with dignity and respect in an environment of their peers."

"We have veteran residents that defy medical statistics daily. The reason that many of them are still alive is because of the quality of care they receive," she added.

Bystrek also noted that the 125 veterans who depend on the facility for housing in addition to care could be displaced.

j.bergman@theday.com

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