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Tyrone Borough hears concerns of veterans over Altoona Hospital cutbacks

Tyrone Borough Council heard from concerned veterans at last night’s meeting on the same day Congressman Bill Shuster met with veterans and officials at Van Zandt Medical Center regarding cutbacks at the hospital.
Prior to hearing from the veterans, Mayor Patricia Stoner cited a letter written to The Daily Herald by Councilman Bill Fink.
In the letter published on Saturday, Fink stated, “It is projected that the Medical Center will lose 28 acute care beds as a result of a study recommending their elimination.”
Fink detailed his concern for veterans in Tyrone who rely on the facility. He went on to urge the public and borough officials to “stand up and be counted” to support the veterans.
In the letter he also stated, “Without this facility our area veterans will be forced to travel to Pittsburgh or, even do without medical care creating a real hardship for them and their families.”
Fink’s next comment did not go without notice at last night’s borough council meeting. In his letter Fink said, “I have requested our Tyrone Borough Council join with other governmental bodies to adopt a resolution of support to retain this facility.” Fink also suggested action be taken as soon as possible along with letters expressing the borough’s support to various state and federal officials.
Mayor Stoner pointed out that the issue had not been brought before council by Fink prior to last night’s meeting or publication of the letter. Fink responded by saying he had advised to Borough Manager Nathan George who Fink said told him to bring it up at the meeting.
The mayor expressed concern to Fink that his bringing the matter up in the newspaper could give some people cause to think council is “neglecting an issue” which Stoner believed would be supported by the members including herself.
Mayor Stoner went on to detail her own personal family experiences involving veterans and expressed concern to the veterans in attendance. The issue was not listed on the agenda for last night’s council meeting and Fink originally intended to bring it up under the miscellaneous section of the agenda. With the subject out in the open, the mayor asked for comments from the veterans and any others desiring to speak on the hospital bed reduction matter at the VA facility in Altoona.
Among those addressing council were William Geist, the post commander at the VFW in Tyrone and Robert Nine who is a past commander and a district deputy commander with the American Legion. Both expressed their beliefs the beds and services are needed and will continue to grow given the age of most World War II and Korean Veterans. It was also not many Vietnam Veterans are now 55 and older and will soon if not already be in need of services.
Tyrone borough eventually decided to draft a resolution supporting the veterans on the issues facing the hospital in Altoona. It’s expected to be presented to council for action next week.
The reduction in beds is causing concern among area vets who fear future cutbacks or even closures and the resulting hardship of additional travel to remaining hospitals located in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Those who visited with Congressman Shuster earlier in the day noted travel from Altoona to Pittsburgh is more than ninety miles. However, consideration must be given to the additional miles rural veterans must travel. For example, someone traveling from the northern Blair area would need to travel more than 100 miles one way to Pittsburgh for services.
Recently, a recommendation from a special federal commission calls for the acute care wing at James Van Zandt Medical Center in Altoona to close immediately. Statistics show more than 80 thousand veterans in the region use the hospital in Altoona. Some veterans are even concerned they may have to go to a non-veterans hospital for treatment and not have the insurance to cover it.
As for Congressman Shuster, he is expected to join with other congressional leaders from Pennsylvania to meet with the Veterans Affairs secretary Anthony J. Principi to try and convince him to keep the beds at the Altoona facility in place.
Shuster is also urging veterans to get involved by writing to the secretary to protest the recommendations of the federal commission. Other leaders are also working on the issue with Senator Arlen Specter due in Altoona in mid-March to hold public hearings on the cutbacks.