Originally created 07/06/99

Delegations rallied to fend off VA cuts



Faced with losing 170 people at Augusta veterans hospitals, U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., is rallying the Georgia and South Carolina delegations to block the plan. Veterans advocates also are cheering the resignation of a longtime Washington foe.

Mr. Norwood is circulating a petition among both delegations that will go to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo West. Staff for U.S. Sens. Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., confirmed they would join the effort.

"We do have some hopes for an intervention from on high," said Bill Johnstone, legislative director for Mr. Cleland.

Mr. Norwood is skeptical of Augusta VA Director Ellen DeGeorge Smith's claim that the VA must cut positions to be more efficient but that it won't affect services, said Norwood spokesman John Stone. Mrs. DeGeorge-Smith declined to comment.

VA public information officer Rosalie Bell did confirm the VA is talking with Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center about housing psychiatric patients in vacant wards on the fourth floor.

"(F)rom every indication we have, the quality of service and care have been steadily declining without layoffs," the letter says. "Frankly, we fail to see how further cuts in staffing can in any way help the situation improve."

But Pete Wheeler, Georgia commissioner of veterans service, was cheered by the resignation Wednesday of VA Undersecretary for Health Kenneth Kizer. The architect of the VA's plan to serve more veterans with less funds, Dr. Kizer angered many veterans groups and resigned when it became clear the Senate would not reconfirm him for his position.

"If we can get a good person in there now and show some leadership, maybe we can save the Veterans Affairs hospital system," Mr. Wheeler said.

Tom Corwin covers science and medicine for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.