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VA panel calls for hospital closures

Three facilities suggested; others would escape ax

WASHINGTON -- Veterans' hospitals in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Mississippi should be shut down, but the administration should scrap plans to close facilities in New York, Kentucky, and California, an advisory commission said yesterday.

The 16-member panel appointed to review the Department of Veterans Affairs projected realignment of its health care system also agreed with the Bush administration that a new hospital was needed in Orlando, Fla. It disagreed with the recommendation for one in Las Vegas.

VA Secretary Anthony Principi promised to decide in about a month which hospitals to close or reduce in size. Democrats were skeptical that final decisions would come in an election year.

Senate minority leader Tom Daschle said the importance of Ohio and Pennsylvania in the presidential campaign could outweigh arguments in favor of closing hospitals in those two states.

"I'd be surprised," said Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, if the White House were to accept the recommendations. Veterans' groups say the government shouldn't even be thinking about closing VA facilities while US soldiers are being wounded in Iraq. "Regardless of the election, it seems inappropriate to close veterans' hospitals in time of war," said American Legion spokesman Steve Thomas.

The panel rejected administration proposals to close hospitals in Canandaigua, N.Y.; Lexington, Ky.; and Livermore, Calif. It agreed on the closure of hospitals in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Gulfport, Miss.

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