Despite outcry from lawmakers and veterans groups, the Department of Veterans Affairs is pushing forward on a controversial plan to move a highly regarded residential post-traumatic stress disorder program from its Waco campus to the VA’s Temple campus.
A similar plan was shut down two years ago in the face of congressional opposition, and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, a Republican who represents the Waco area, has vowed to stop the change this time too, potentially by blocking funding for the move.
Local VA leaders say the move will save taxpayers $1.5 million per year by enrolling patients into inpatient substance abuse treatment alongside their PTSD therapy, reducing relapses and the need for future treatment.
But the proposed new location for the residential program has set off alarm bells among advocates. VA leaders are seeking to fold the PTSD program into the VA’s domiciliary on its Temple campus, a facility with a difficult history. The domiciliary, part of a network of similar facilities established across the country over a century ago, is home to a mix of at-risk populations, including chronically homeless veterans, veterans trying to quit drugs and veterans undergoing court-ordered therapy.
“The (Waco) campus is much more conducive to actual treatment. It’s a pastoral setting, a much better setting for treating emotional disease,” said state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco. “They are trying to save dollars rather than their intended purpose of treating veterans with PTSD.”
In 2012, a security assessment of the Temple domiciliary, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that VA police had investigated criminal activity at the facility, including suspected drug use, gambling, gang activity and prostitution. Their review called for better security at the building to “deter unauthorized access into the Domiciliary, such as prostitutes or outside drug dealers” as well as random drug dog searches and bag inspections.
VA officials say they have made a number of improvements at the facility since the 2012 review, including providing an active VA police presence in the domiciliary, surveillance cameras, random contraband checks and better control of the building’s entries.
The Temple domiciliary’s work program also has been the center of a recent scandal in which VA officials were accused of forcing veterans to clean officials’ vehicles and do yardwork and other odd jobs at officials’ personal homes. Those allegations remain under investigation, though at least one VA employee has been fired.
One veteran, who recently went through an inpatient treatment program at the domiciliary, called the proposed move a bad idea. “There are a ton of different people in the dom for a ton of different reasons,” said the veteran, who requested anonymity because he is still enrolled in the Waco PTSD program. “That type of environment is not conducive to what the Waco program is doing. The environment here is quiet. You’ve got all these different options to ground yourself.”
Women’s program needs more space
VA officials say the relocation will allow them to move a growing women’s military sexual trauma unit out of the domiciliary and into the PTSD program’s space in Waco. Both sides of the debate agree the women’s treatment program needs a new home.
Central Texas VA Director Christopher Sandles said in a recent telephone town hall with local veterans that some women in the program have complained of sexually harassing comments in the domiciliary’s common areas. “That treatment didn’t need to be in a gender-mixed environment,” he said.
Sandles said there isn’t room for both programs at the Waco campus, though critics, including Flores, dispute that.
Steve Hernandez, McLennan County’s veterans service officer, said the Waco residential program has received high marks from local veterans and that he fears the move could mean fewer psychologists and licensed social workers for PTSD patients. And while the VA touts the benefit of giving PTSD patients access to the domiciliary’s substance abuse therapists, Hernandez said substance abuse treatment is also available to veterans in Waco.
The VA says it has not finalized staffing numbers, but that it intends to hire psychologists and staff the program “in accordance with VA Central Office guidelines for a 25 bed PTSD residential unit.”
That represents a reduction from the Waco program’s 36 beds, though VA officials say the program’s recent average enrollment is 20 to 21 patients.
New push to shut down Waco campus?
Meanwhile, the proposed move has rekindled long-standing worries that the VA is seeking to shut down the Waco campus as part of a wider cost savings measure.
In a recent editorial in the Waco Tribune-Herald, Hernandez called the planned move part of “the federal bureaucracy’s sly attempt to leave the Waco VA campus vulnerable to closure if discussions of underperforming VA campus closures begin again, just as we witnessed some 15 years ago.”
Such fears go back to at least 2006, when Waco’s then-U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards secured nearly $50 million in funding for the Waco campus.
“That’s what I’m concerned about, yes,” Flores said. He said that, if the VA goes through with its announced plan, he will explore legislative strategies to stop it.
Fellow U.S. Rep. John Carter, a Republican who represents the Temple area, has given support to moving the PTSD program. “My first concern is, and always will be, taking care of our Central Texas veterans,” Carter said in a statement. “It is crucial that our veterans receive the best possible care, and these relocation efforts reflect a desire to put the health and welfare of our veterans first, which is my top priority.”
VA leaders say they aren’t trying to starve the Waco campus. “We are not considering closing it, but in fact, making it even a stronger facility,” said VA spokeswoman Deborah Meyer, who added that since 2012, the VA has spent more than $60 million on renovations and new projects and added 518 employees in Waco.
Among the new additions is a VA Center of Excellence research center into PTSD and traumatic brain injuries that works closely with the treatment program. The center has had a rocky history, and in its early years research efforts and millions in taxpayer dollars were squandered due to infighting and equipment failures. But last year the center opened a $10 million state-of-the-art research facility on the Waco campus with new staff and research equipment.
Critics of the move say patients in the residential PTSD program are a vital part of research efforts and benefit from advances made by researchers there. “We should be putting veterans (close) to our brightest minds and best environment, and the (Waco) campus has all those attributes,” Flores said.
VA officials say patients still could be taken the 40 miles from Temple to Waco to participate in research. They also point to the relatively low number of patients the move will affect: Last year, 151 patients went through the residential PTSD program, while about 12,000 patients were treated in an outpatient basis. Officials said outpatient PTSD services will still be available in Waco after the move.
The VA also has touted the results of a telephone poll taken during its virtual town hall earlier this month, in which about three-quarters of respondents agreed with the move. But critics say they weren’t permitted to give their arguments before the poll.