By Sabina Mollot
It was over five years ago when Superstorm Sandy flooded much of Manhattan’s East Side, crippling hospitals in Bedpan Alley. But it was the VA Medical Center on East 23rd Street that fared the worst, closing for six months.
Today, thanks to $207 million in federal relief money, the veterans’ hospital, while fully operational, is still undergoing work to replace systems that need to be upgraded rather than just repaired in the event of a future catastrophe.
Martina Parauda, director of VA NY Harbor Healthcare System (which includes local facilities including the Manhattan one), spoke to veterans about some of the ongoing projects at a town hall meeting on Tuesday morning.
The massive floodwall that began construction in 2015 is mostly done, including parts that can’t be seen like underwater pumps. It was originally supposed to be completed in 2016, but the VA has previously said underground excavation proved to be more complicated than expected.
On Tuesday, Parauda said, “If it’s not 100 percent, it’s 95 percent. It’s pretty close.”
But, she acknowledged, the hospital is currently a construction zone and will remain one for the foreseeable future. A recently started project will replace eight elevators, with two being taken out of service at a time. This project could take two years to complete.
“Because of Sandy at some point they were underwater,” said Parauda. They function but not as top notch as we would like.”
The facility’s entire electrical system is also getting replaced, with most of the related construction taking place on the hospital’s north side at 25th Street.
Another change is that an entrance revolving door will soon becoming a sliding door, which is expected to happen by spring. According to Parauda, too many veterans were hitting the glass and falling.
“We’re trying to make it more user-friendly, especially for those waiting for Access-A-Ride,” she said.
An onsite chapel that’s been inaccessible since the flooding is still that way, even though work has completed. Parauda said the reason for this as that the entire ground floor has too much construction going on for it to be safe. So far there is no date for the chapel’s reopening though Parauda said chaplain services are still available in another area.
Other planned changes are for all patient care services to be moved off the ground floor and for a trailer that’s been outside the property to disappear. The trailer is currently where medical instruments are sterilized, but that process will be moved indoors in the spring.
In non-Sandy related projects, Parauda announced there is new seating in the lobbies and a television has been moved out so that half the space will be more quiet than the other. This decision, she said, was based on feedback from veterans who complained the area was too noisy. “We wanted to divide it without putting up a wall,” she said.
While addressing the veterans at the hospital’s ground floor atrium, Parauda also spoke about wait times faced by patients. While the Manhattan VA hasn’t had the same problem as other veteran hospitals around the country where patients can wait months to be seen, she admitted that doctors’ waiting rooms were another story.
“You may get a timely appointment but a long wait in the waiting room. That’s not good,” she said, adding that she’s aware of doctors overbooking. “If you have a 10 o’clock appointment, you should not still be there at 11, waiting to be called.”
She added that the hospital is looking into whether there needs to be more doctors or clinics.
She also denied that there is any closure of clinics during a question and answer period.
“I’m hearing all kinds of things about it, but it’s not true,” said Parauda. She also denied that there’s a federal hiring freeze, saying, “We are recruiting.”
However, she added some positions are being reviewed.
“I look at every position to see if it’s needed,” she said. “Just because it was a job 10 years ago doesn’t mean it’s what the job is now. Jobs may need to be re-described.”
Another issue brought up was last month’s government shutdown, with Parauda saying even if that happened again, business would continue as usual at the VA since it is funded regardless of government gridlock.