Jewish Hospital’s downtown campus

Sen. Rand Paul asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in June to meet with University of Louisville interim President Greg Postel to discuss an idea he had pitched to Paul weeks earlier — that the VA consider buying the downtown Jewish Hospital from KentuckyOne Health as the site for a replacement VA hospital instead of the agency constructing a nearly $1 billion new hospital on the controversial property off Brownsboro Road.

Though Paul did not explicitly endorse the VA changing course and pursuing Jewish Hospital in his June 13 letter to the head of the VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management, it does mark a rare occurrence of the senator wading into the often-heated debate over where the replacement hospital should be located, as he has mostly kept his distance from that issue and remained neutral.

However, despite the senator’s request to the VA that such a meeting take place, UofL spokesman John Karman tells IL that “there has been no meeting or discussion between the VA and Postel.”

On May 24 — 12 days after KentuckyOne announced it was putting Jewish Hospital and other Louisville properties up for sale — Postel wrote to Paul and stated he “would like to follow up on our conversation about” the VA hospital that took place on his recent trip to the nation’s capitol. Stating that the Brownsboro property is currently the preferred location of the VA, he noted that “some community members have expressed concerns about” that decision, but KentuckyOne’s announcement that it is selling the property “would provide a new, previously unavailable option for the VA, which would allow for updating the existing Jewish Hospital facility to meet the needs of the VA.”

“The University of Louisville has many wonderful programs that would be in close proximity if the VA decided to locate in the Jewish Hospital facility,” wrote Postel, repeating a longstanding position of UofL leadership that a downtown location for the VA hospital would better serve patients. “The James Graham Brown Cancer Center, the Frazier Rehab Institute, and our cutting edge organ transplant and spinal cord injury programs would be easily accessible for veterans. As discussion continues about the location of the Louisville VA hospital, the University of Louisville would be glad to help coordinate conversation and assist in the dialogue between KentuckyOne Health, the VA, and other interested parties.”

Sen. Rand Paul

In his letter three weeks later to Stella Fiotes, executive director of the VA Office of Construction and Facilities Management, Paul wrote that since the VA declared the Brownsboro property its preferred location for a replacement hospital in April, “I have heard from many constituents that have proposed looking at additional site locations.” He added that he believes the No. 1 priority needs to be expeditiously providing the best care possible for veterans “while respecting taxpayer dollars.”

Paul then stated he had attached the related correspondence he received from Postel, adding that “on behalf of Dr. Postel and the University of Louisville, I ask that you meet with him and other interested parties to discuss his idea to expedite the replacement process and potentially save taxpayer dollars.”

Karman told IL on Wednesday that despite Paul’s efforts, the VA has not set up a meeting or discussion with Postel. Karman said he thought it would be “premature” to say that Postel was disappointed by the fact that the VA has not yet met with him to discuss the Jewish Hospital option, as “a meeting could still be requested.”

Postel first publicly suggested that the VA should consider purchasing Jewish Hospital for its replacement medical center just days after KentuckyOne announced it was for sale on May 12.

Though local officials at Louisville’s Robley Rex VA Medical Center have long stood firm in their preference that construction at the Brownsboro property should push forward as soon possible, on June 13 — the same day Paul issued a letter to the VA — its medical director Martin Traxler told WAVE3 that the VA was looking to see “if there’s any potential” in the Jewish Hospital property. However, Traxler added that he was not sure if Jewish Hospital could meet the VA requirement for “a 50-foot standoff distance to all fences and parking.”

As for whether the VA is now seriously considering Jewish Hospital as an option or instead pushing forward with the Brownsboro option is not entirely clear. VA spokeswoman Glenda Powell reiterated in a statement to The Courier-Journal this week that while they received several alternative site inquiries — including Jewish Hospital — since April, “at this time” the VA “has not identified a new preferred alternative site.” She also reaffirmed that the next step required for the VA to move forward at the Brownsboro property would be to publish its final decision on that preferred site, which has been eligible to be released since May 27.

Asked if the VA is still considering Jewish Hospital as an alternative site or if that property has been eliminated from consideration, VA spokesman VA Robert Madden said the department would not expand on that previous statement.

Sen. Paul’s spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper told IL about Paul’s letter to the VA requesting that they meet with Postel to discuss his proposal, adding that the senator “continues to believe the number one priority is providing the veterans of this nation with exceptional medical care while respecting taxpayer funding.”

After the VA named the Brownsboro property its preferred location in April, both Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Yarmuth issued statements indicating a willingness to push forward with the project at Brownsboro after a decade full of delays in the replacement hospital project. McConnell’s spokesman issued the identical statement to IL on Wednesday when asked for his position on the Jewish Hospital option, and Yarmuth’s spokesman said he was not immediately available for comment.

Critics of the Brownsboro location have argued that a new VA hospital would only exacerbate traffic problems in what is already one of the most congested interchanges of the city, adding difficulty to the commute of both patients and staff. Others have argued that a downtown location would better serve patients and be closer to the UofL doctors who make up most of the VA staff, and that using Jewish Hospital would cut down on costs by not requiring the nearly $1 billion construction of a new hospital on greenfield land off Brownsboro near the Watterson Expressway.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]