Investigators from the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs traveled to Louisville in August to interview and collect information from prominent critics of the site selection for the proposed new VA hospital off Brownsboro Road, according to multiple interviewees who spoke with Insider Louisville.
While staffers of the committee chose not to reveal any details on the scope of this investigation to IL, those interviewed said investigators were interested in learning more about the appraisal and site-selection process for the land chosen for the new VA hospital, as well as feasibility problems with the selected site.
A separate report by the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs released on Sept. 17 concluded that the VA may have overpaid more than $3 million for the Brownsboro Road property; did not follow proper appraisal reviews; and misrepresented information provided to this same House committee.
The initial appraisal of the property – owned by local developer Jonathan Blue — in December of 2010 valued the land at $9.85 million, though a second appraisal in February of 2012 valued it at more than $12.9 million, the price for which the VA purchased the land after selecting it as the best site for the new hospital.
The VA has given no indication that the IG report will cause them to abandon the Brownsboro Road site, while critics continue to argue the land itself is plagued with shortcomings – from the inability to handle increased traffic and the lack of a completed environmental impact statement, to the east Louisville location falling short of the ability to give veterans optimal services. Such critics publicly calling for a change in location for the hospital now includes the University of Louisville.
According to multiple interviewees, the House investigators were given a copy of a letter from Dr. Toni Ganzel – the dean of the university’s School of Medicine – to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, dated Aug. 19, 2015. In the letter, Ganzel made a passionate plea for the VA to switch to a downtown location for the new hospital, arguing its proximity to specialty care units and U of L medical staff – who make up the majority of physicians who treat VA patients – would give veterans the highest quality of health care.
“The current Louisville Veterans Affairs Medical Center (LVAMC) provides Veterans with excellent medical care, but we know not all specialty services are available, which requires transfer to hospitals downtown, creating delays in the delivery of patient care,” wrote Ganzel. “The School of Medicine views a downtown location for the inpatient facility as a tremendous opportunity to enhance the quality and quantity of care that can be provided to Veterans. The majority of the physicians at the VA are UofL faculty who also practice at the Downtown Medical Center and could spend far more time in the care of veterans if the travel time were minimized. The new proposed location, particularly when factoring in traffic, will be even more challenging than the current location.”
Ganzel also emphasized that a downtown location would offer close proximity to many of the nonprofit agencies that serve veterans, in addition to providing improved infrastructure, accessibility from all parts of the city, and access to specialists in limb transplants, spine care and rehabilitation.
In a statement given this week to Grow Smart Louisville – a citizen group opposed to the Brownsboro site – Dr. John Roberts, U of L’s associate dean of Graduate Medical Education, said a downtown site would dramatically cut back on the travel time of their 106 residents going back and forth from the VA hospital, which would be even farther at the proposed site than the current location on Zorn Avenue in the Crescent Hill area.
“I truly believe that the veterans would get better and more timely care at a downtown site, and the resident/fellow educational environment would be greatly enhanced with the VA on the downtown medical campus,” wrote Roberts.
The points emphasized in Ganzel’s letter significantly mirrored those of a letter sent to then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in 2011 by Dr. David Dunn, U of L’s executive vice president for Health Affairs — before the Brownsboro site was chosen.
Asked if U of L president Dr. James Ramsey agrees with Ganzel’s call for the VA to halt and switch its location for the new hospital, spokesman John Karman affirmed that veterans would be best served downtown.
“Dr. Ganzel’s letter to Sec. McDonald reiterated the long-held belief by all at the University of Louisville that the veterans would be best served by a downtown facility,” said Karman. “Sec. McDonald was not in his current position at the time of the initial site decision and as the evaluation of that site continues we thought it important for Sec. McDonald to have all the information related to this topic.”
Among the critics of the Brownsboro site who told IL of their meetings with House investigators in August were Irene and Michael Yeager, Crossgate residents who would literally live in the shadow of a Brownsboro hospital; Eric Gunderson of Grow Smart Louisville, along with fellow board member Dr. Michael Cassaro; and Jeff Underhill, a developer with Underhill Associates. The Yeagers also say they know the investigators met with Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, who represents that district, Northfield resident Pat Roles, and representatives from LG&E, Metropolitan Sewer District and the Lyndon Fire Department.
Two House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs staffers told IL they have been investigating this matter for some time, but would not reveal any other details in order to protect the integrity of their investigation.
The Yeagers – who would prefer the hospital either move downtown or stay at Zorn Avenue with a renovation and expansion – said they had a wide-ranging discussion about the past, present and future of the VA’s site-selection process with the investigators, who “wanted to know all of the dirt, names and dates.” They said investigators were particularly interested in hearing about the associations of Jonathan Blue, the land appraisal process, future parking and traffic issues at the Brownsboro site, and the long delay of a final environmental assessment or environmental impact statement for that property.
In an email to the Yeagers shared with IL, one of the House investigators wrote before their meeting: “Please note I am not writing a formal report at the end of this. I am going to use the knowledge indefinitely in the future as the committee oversees this issue.” In an email from resident Pat Roles following her interview, she said the investigators were “tracking the price of the property and the process by which the Brownsboro site was selected,” and were “very interested in the ‘what, who and why’ of that move.”
Developer Jeff Underhill says he also had a wide-ranging discussion with investigators about the Brownsboro site selection, repeating many of the arguments he made in favor of a downtown VA hospital in a Courier-Journal op-ed this February. He said he received 300 positive emails following that op-ed – including one from Dr. Ramsey – and that “as a concerned citizen, the (Brownsboro site) doesn’t make any damned sense.”
Grow Smart Louisville’s Eric Gunderson said the investigators’ questions “were pretty basic inquiries into the background of the project, but it was clear they have little confidence in the VA’s competency to manage projects like the proposed medical center.”
Councilwoman Leet did not respond to IL’s inquiry on the matter, but said after the IG’s report last month that she doesn’t “think it’s too late” for the VA to switch the hospital to a new location. The councilwoman was the driving force behind a unanimously approved Metro Council resolution calling for the VA to complete an environmental impact study before constructing the new hospital on the Brownsboro site. The final report for a less-thorough environmental assessment of the property was to be released by the VA earlier this year but has been delayed without explanation.
Leet’s advocacy for nixing the Brownsboro location has not been shared by two elected officials with considerably more power: Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth.
Throughout the past four years, both McConnell and Yarmuth have been quick to say they had no influence over what site the VA selected for the new hospital, but that it should be built as quickly as possible. While both issued statements flogging the VA after the critical IG report, neither is calling for a re-examination of where the hospital should be located. Asked by IL if the site-selection process should be opened up again, McConnell’s spokesman sent the identical statement he issued last month criticizing the VA’s mismanagement of the project.
Despite calling for the IG investigation in 2014, Yarmuth said this April that he is “actually fairly comfortable with the site selection process,” and that “if we stop this (Brownsboro) process now, we’re talking about another 10 years before we would get a hospital.” Asked by IL on Friday if Yarmuth believes the site selection process should be opened up again, his spokesman Christopher Schuler said he did not.
“The Congressman supports moving forward with the Brownsboro Road site, so long as the new environmental impact statement substantially confirms the initial analysis,” wrote Schuler.
The VA did not respond to IL’s inquiry for this story.