World War II veteran Philip J. Campagna couldn't help but become emotional when he talked yesterday about the closing of the veterans hospital at Fort Howard.
"It breaks my heart to know that the hospital is being closed after 59 years," said Campagna, a Hamilton resident, leaning on his walker at the hospital grounds.
"Absolutely every veteran I know wants to keep the hospital here, and they also want a new veterans home. We feel strongly about it."
Yesterday was a bittersweet day for the crowd of 600 that gathered under tents for a patriotic ceremony billed as a celebration of Fort Howard's history and a tribute to its staff and volunteers. For the elderly veterans, their families, volunteers and employees, the Fort Howard Veterans Affairs Medical Center has stood as a monument, and it was time to say goodbye.
Anthony J. Principi, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said that with its legacy of service, the center was not closing, but being transformed. He promised that the state's veterans facilities would continue the "sacred mission of healing."
The five-story hospital opened in 1943. On Sept. 10, its remaining 40 beds and 31 patients will be moved to the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center at 3900 Loch Raven Blvd. or to Perry Point VA Medical Center in Cecil County.
An outpatient clinic will open Sept. 20 on the grounds of Fort Howard, on the North Point peninsula at the southeastern tip of Baltimore County.
"Fort Howard is an old facility," said Dennis H. Smith, director of the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System, which oversees four veterans hospitals and five outpatient clinics. "There was no central air conditioning and no patient privacy. We faced a lot of problems at this facility."
Smith said the VA decided to change the mission at Fort Howard and move the veterans to other locations that were underutilized, such as Loch Raven and Perry Point. "We've been operating only about 85 beds at Fort Howard for the last six years," Smith said. "And the length of stays by the veterans had decreased."
He also said the cost of renovating Fort Howard was prohibitive. Smith estimated it would have cost $23 million to bring it up to standards. The closing of the medical center, Smith said, will save the VA about $9.7 million that could be used to open more clinics or buy more equipment.
"The quality of care is not going to change," Smith said. "The veterans will have better access to other facilities, since there is no public transportation out at Fort Howard."
Smith said he expects the outpatient clinic to treat 20,000 to 25,000 patients a year.
The VA wants to lease the remaining 95 acres at Fort Howard, which overlooks the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay, to a private developer who would build housing for independent and assisted living, and a nursing home. Smith said veterans would get priority placement and discounts to live at these facilities.
He also said the state needs a veterans home in the Baltimore area and that the VA would lease or donate land at Fort Howard for such a home. The only veterans home in the state is in St. Mary's County. "We want to maintain this campus for the veterans," Smith said.
He hopes to get the approval of the surrounding Fort Howard community in public hearings next spring and said the final decision on a developer is 18 months away.