KEEPING the Fort Howard VA Medical Center open hasn't made sense for decades. It's a crumbling, 57-year-old giant of a hospital in need of $23 million in repairs. Even then, this hospital by the bay would hold just 85 veterans.
It makes far more sense to consolidate medical services for veterans at more modern VA health centers. Indeed, shuttering Fort Howard over several years will save nearly $10 million a year that could be redirected into other medical programs for Maryland veterans.
Only 73 hospital beds at Fort Howard are occupied; it used to contain 245. It is located so far away from population centers that no public transportation is available. And the old buildings there are decaying rapidly. Quonset huts -- the type used during World War II -- still serve as recreation halls.
There's no denying the beauty of the Fort Howard site in eastern Baltimore County-- 95 acres on the tip of the North Point Peninsula overlooking the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay.
But veterans deserve better. Plans now awaiting approval at VA headquarters in Washington would relocate most of the Fort Howard beds to VA centers at Perry Point in Cecil County and the new nursing and rehabilitation complex on Loch Raven Boulevard near Memorial Stadium.
Over the past four years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has started to overhaul its health system for former military men and women. In Maryland, the VA has opened more regional centers and such innovations as a mobile health clinic that visits rural areas and a shelter for homeless veterans in Baltimore.
Nationwide, the VA has cut $1 billion through hospital closings, consolidation of services and a new emphasis on walk-in treatment at regional health centers.
Since 1996, the Maryland VA has closed 276 beds, eliminated 400 jobs and concentrated on better outpatient care and preventive medicine at more locations. The result: a marked increase in the number of veterans receiving medical care.
The modern downtown VA Medical Center, for instance, has proved a good investment. It boasts an 86 percent occupancy rate for its 137 beds and a host of busy outpatient clinics. To improve efficiency, the hospital shares services, especially in medical specialties, with University of Maryland Medical Center, which is linked to the VA by an enclosed pedestrian bridge.
Closer cooperative arrangements could lead to greater efficiencies -- and better medical care -- in future years.
Indeed, the VA would do well to integrate more of its services with nearby hospitals that serve the general population. The big winners would be the patients.