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Central Florida waits for hospital

The head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) agrees with Ken Baker, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Cocoa: Central Florida is long overdue for a VA hospital.

But the saga of the 450-bed hospital promised almost a decade ago shows no signs of ending as the VA continues to postpone its decision on picking one of seven possible sites in Orange, Brevard or Volusia counties.

"I get angry about it," Baker, who was riddled with shrapnel in a rocket attack in Vietnam, told the Orlando Sentinel in a story published Sunday. "Every time I hear that they've postponed the hospital again, I say, "Oh, no. What's next?'

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Edward Derwinski, VA secretary, said he wants to study 1990 census data before giving the go-ahead for the $150-million hospital and its 250-bed nursing home.

"I came aboard three years ago, the problem was here, and I regret that I haven't made the decision yet," Derwinski told the newspaper. "I certainly want to. It's been too long."

Each of the seven sites has a congressional champion, either Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood; Rep. Jim Bacchus, D-Belle Isle, or Rep. Craig James, R-DeLand.

The conflicts have helped fuel the VA's indecision, since the department wants to make sure congressmen and their favorite sites get equal hearings.

"You just can't arbitrarily or Rambo-like roll over politicians," Derwinski said. "You have to treat them with a degree of respect."

If a site is chosen this year, the hospital would not open until 1998 at the earliest, he said.

The hospital is expected to employ 1,100 and have an annual budget of $60-million, the equivalent of nearly half the people and funds needed to run the city of Orlando this year.

It is expected to spur a rush of development as bulldozers make way for doctors' offices, laboratories, medical businesses, shopping centers, homes and apartments.

The need for the hospital grows more acute every day among Central Florida's 260,000 veterans. Many are elderly, poor and disabled and will die before a hospital opens.

"I don't know what the hell they're doing, and Derwinski gets very angry with me when I tell him that," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Earl Peck, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The average age of a World War II veteran is now 70, and if it takes eight to 10 years to build a hospital and get it open, it becomes academic," he said. "You don't live forever."

Central Florida veterans now must drive to Tampa or Gainesville for treatment in a VA hospital. They can use VA outpatient clinics in Orlando and Daytona Beach.

But with 1.5-million veterans in Florida and 3,000 moving in each month, the need for a Central Florida facility grows more urgent, Peck said.

Florida has more veterans over 65 than any state. It has 10,400 veterans who are totally disabled from service-related injuries _ the most in the nation _ and the second highest number of veterans with lesser disabilities, about 185,000.

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