HARTSELLE, Ala. - Reverend James Henderson said he's sure it will happen, and he said his vision is clear.
For the past six months, Henderson worked to garner support for his idea to turn the now-closed Hartselle Hospital facility into a state-run veterans home.
"I can tell you, as a preacher and as an old soldier this is a fight for our veterans," said Henderson.
It's no secret that Alabama's four state veteran homes have wait lists. Reverend Henderson said the old 120-bed Hartselle facility can help alleviate the wait. He said it would help address the more than 800 people on state waiting lists.
"We have 800 elderly veterans on the waiting lists at the four homes," Henderson began. "582 of them, or 70%, of those veterans on those four lists on the four homes are on the list for Birmingham or Huntsville."
He goes on to say Hartselle is ideally positioned, within approximately an hour long drive of the two, and can help do some of the lifting. He says the hospital could be perfect for dementia and Alzheimer's patients.
The Hartselle facility is currently owned by Huntsville Hospital, and Rev. Henderson said he has worked with Huntsville Hospital administrators to discuss the possible cost of renovation, and how the transition to a possible state veteran home would work.
The problem, he said, is that the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs rejects the idea. They did not come to see the facility, but say they know the hospital setup will not work for their model.
"The VA adopted a concept of making veterans homes as much like their own personal homes as possible," Rev. Henderson explained.
But that, he said, is not reason enough to give up on the concept. He believes that with the right renovations, it can be a great staffed facility for servicemen and servicewomen with debilitating conditions.
WHNT News 19 spoke with Mayor Randy Garrison, who said the hospital played a major role in the city for so long, in fact, he was born there and his mother worked there for decades.
"I think it's a great idea if it could come to fruition," he said. "It would create jobs, more taxes for the city. Hartselle Hospital was one of Hartselle Utilities' biggest customers so it would be taxes from the utilities."
Also, a recent meeting, Priceville town council passed a resolution in support of the old hospital becoming a veterans home.
Rev. Henderson said the state government is good about responding to the will of the people, and getting support from municipalities and Alabama residents will help make it happen.
He's already met with a number of Alabama lawmakers, as well as representatives with Huntsville Hospital, who owns the facility. and he has plans to meet with Governor Bentley to push it forward.
Henderson described the Alabama VA's response as 'lukewarm at best,' and Commissioner Clyde Marsh released the following statement to WHNT News 19.
Caring for our veterans is one of the most sacred duties one can perform on a daily basis and it is of special significance for all Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs (ADVA) employees. We work hand in glove with the federal government to care for elderly and disabled veterans regarding all benefits or services but especially in our State Veterans Homes (SVH).
Alabama currently has four SVHs for aged and infirm veterans. Sen. Bill Holtzclaw requested that the ADVA provide our assessment of the suitability of using the vacant Hartselle Medical Center in light of a constituent’s interest.
The assessment indicated that the hospital is not suitable as a state veterans home. “The problem with many legacy or older (senior) living facilities is they’re very institutional, they look, feel and function like hospitals or infirmaries,” W. Clyde Marsh, ADVA Commissioner, said.
The Hartselle hospital and new patient wing were built in 1953 and operated as a medical facility until 2012. In 2012, that hospital was deemed no longer useful or beneficial in meeting the purpose for which it was built. The hospital closed in January 2012 and has remained shuttered.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA) committed to a cultural transformation of resident-centered homes for skilled care in 2005. This transformation changed the homes to the small house design, with 10–14 resident rooms per house for all future SVH construction projects. New homes must have a front door entrance to each house including a foyer, all private rooms and bathrooms, and include a living room, dining room and a kitchen which duplicates the home environment for each resident veteran. Retrofitting and repurposing of old existing structures must follow the same guidelines and incorporate the same design specifications.
The USDVA has attempted to repurpose and convert old existing facilities in the past. Those attempts often required a complete gutting and rebuild or a tear down and new construction on site.
“This new design provides a sense of community and the veteran’s own home rather an institutional feel,” Commissioner Marsh said. “It creates a home away from home environment for the veterans which facilitates better access to daily living care, interaction with small house staff which improves the veteran’s experience and reinforces the standards of care.”
The ADVA conducted a feasibility study in 2007. Kim Justice, Executive Director of the State Veterans Home program, said, “Now at the 10-year mark, we are near completing the recommendations of that study which entailed the opening of a new 254-bed home in the Birmingham area and upgrading/improving our current state veterans homes. We are seeking to conduct a new feasibility study that will project needs and guide our path of decision-making for the next 10–15 years.”
The results of this new study will determine if and where a new veterans home will be built. If a new home is built, construction falls under the USDVA guidelines.
“The old hospital is not useful for the ADVA for consideration as a State Veterans Homes to achieve a purpose for which it was not designed or constructed. The VA has specific designs, and strict requirements in order to meet the operational requirements of a SVH and provide the necessary standards of skilled care.” Commissioner Marsh said. “We appreciate the owners thinking about our agency and veterans; however, this facility is not suitable to be a state veterans home.”