By Katie Lannan
BEDFORD -- The Edith Nourse Rogers Veterans Memorial Veterans Hospital will not be merged into the Boston VA network, after officials announced this week their decision against a 2011 proposal to consolidate the two hospitals.
Instead, New England Veterans Healthcare System officials said they'll combine some systems and resources between Bedford and the VA Boston Healthcare System, while keeping Bedford a distinct entity.
The decision was made with the input of patients, the area's congressional delegation and veteran's service officers from the region, said VA New England Communications Officer Maureen Heard.
"There were some concerns that there's a culture in Bedford that some of the stakeholders really wanted to keep, and maybe not have it become what they thought might be just another part of the Boston system," Heard said.
After multiple town-hall style meetings and soliciting feedback through other means, the New England VA system submitted to national veterans health leadership in Dec. 2011 a proposal to merge Bedford into the three-campus Boston system.
Officials at the time noted the overlapping geographic areas of the hospitals and the high costs to communicate and transport patients between them.
Heard said that when New England system officials brought their proposal to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, he asked if there were any methods other than full integration that would reduce inefficiencies and make things easier on patients.
That led to the plan announced Tuesday, which will combine the hospitals' separate medical-record databases and appointment systems into shared networks.
The Bedford and Boston facilities will also look to share more of their medical staff and better coordinate their transportation systems while focusing on regional planning and services.
"I think this is going to be a real win for the veterans," Heard said. "Because in the end, they'll get a real seamless system that they'll be able to navigate without issue."
U.S. Rep. John Tierney, whose district includes Bedford as well as Billerica, Burlington, Tewksbury and Wilmington, issued a statement in response to the decision, calling the plan to keep Bedford a distinct medical center "important news" for local veterans, their families and the hospital staff.
Tierney told The Sun Wednesday that the level of care provided by the Bedford VA is a key reason he wanted the hospital to be kept independent.
"They provide a service to those veterans that really can't be rivaled anywhere else in the country, let alone in Boston," he said. "Especially in the geriatric area, and with rehabilitation and Alzheimer's patients, they're doing cutting-edge stuff. The staff is the best you can find around."
The congressman said he worked closely with VA officials on the initiative to ensure it would not lead to transferring staff, cutting jobs or compromising services.
Now that the hospital's future has been decided, new, permanent leadership will be recruited for the Bedford VA, where three of the top four positions are currently filled on an acting basis.
"There was so much uncertainty as far as which way we would go, it wasn't fair to try and recruit somebody full-time and permanent who might not have that position in a year," Heard said.
VA administrators will seek a permanent director, chief of staff and nurse executive for the hospital, to join the recently appointed Associate Director Mark Fontaine-Westhart.
Acting Hospital Director Christine Croteau said in a statement that it was a privilege and honor to "lead a world-class organization and to work with such a talented staff."
"During times of transition and uncertainty, there is a greater chance for any organization to falter," Croteau said. "We did not falter. I have great pride in improvements made by this organization in enhancing care for our veterans."
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