Originally created 05/27/98

Centers' talks anger veterans



Amid the solemn tones of Memorial Day ceremonies this weekend was an angry buzz among some veterans over Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers' efforts to provide health care to prisoners.

The Augusta VA centers have had some talks with the new federal Bureau of Prisons facility in Edgefield County, S.C., but those talks are just preliminary, Augusta VA spokeswoman Rosalie Bell confirmed Tuesday.

"We have not made any commitment to them," Mrs. Bell said. The new Edgefield prison, which will begin housing 1,500 medium- to high-security inmates late this year or early next year, can provide most of the care needed, said Mike Smith, executive assistant to the warden. But the prison would like to explore ways of providing more advanced care though services like telemedicine, an interactive two-way video system used for consultations, Mr. Smith said.

But Mrs. Bell said the VA has not offered to actually treat or hospitalize any of the inmates.

"At this point, we're not prepared to offer them anything like that," Mrs. Bell said.

Veterans groups "vigorously oppose" any kind of deal to take care of prisoners, said Pete Wheeler, Georgia commissioner of veterans services.

"I don't think prisoners and veterans mix any better than water and gasoline," Mr. Wheeler said. "I think that's a disgrace."

Local veterans also denounced the idea.

"I would object to that very strongly," said retired Col. Zanio Mastroianni, past commander of the local chapter of Military Order of the World Wars. "It can't make for a very pleasant atmosphere for a guy who's dedicated his life to his country."

The prison discussions stem from a new request from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for VA centers to earn about 10 percent of their budget from outside sources, Mrs. Bell said.

The Augusta VA sent out a letter in April to about 30 federal agencies in the area offering everything from laundry services to employee assistance as a way of earning extra money, Mrs. Bell said. But it was the federal prison that initiated the discussions with the VA, Mr. Smith said. Any future discussions are on hold until the VA names a new director for the Augusta centers, Mr. Smith said.

And veterans groups would be informed "at the earliest possible time if there was going to be any impact on patient care," Mrs. Bell said.

But Mr. Wheeler said he hopes it doesn't get that far along. The hospitals should be properly funded by Congress and shouldn't have to turn to others for help, he said.

"The defenders of this country should not have to go through this," Mr. Wheeler said.