MASSILLON, Ohio — For more than 62,000 veterans enrolled in VA healthcare, Massillon is an hour's drive away or less, according to the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System.
The group said in a statement Tuesday it is in the preliminary stages of "evaluating options to increase access to specialty care in the greater Akron/Canton area to include the vacant healthcare facility in Massillon."
Affinity Medical Center in Massillon closed in February 2018, according to Mayor Kathy Catazaro-Perry. The closure also meant 800 people lost their jobs.
Catazaro-Perry said that the city and the VA have been in talks for months about the Affinity Medical Center building, which is currently owned by the city. She said the city is prepared to donate the building if needed, though the equipment would likely be auctioned off.
"We did tour them through our hospital several times now," Catazaro-Perry said. "This would be a great home for a VA clinic."
Catazaro-Perry, a nurse herself who said her sister is a retired Army colonel, said access to care is critical.
"I understand the service life and I understand the difficulty it is to get to Wade Park [in Cleveland]," Catazaro-Perry said. "And some of them are in wheelchairs and have difficulty navigating."
Massillon is a Purple Heart City, a place where local veterans said they feel appreciated and respected. However, some of them also said it's difficult for veterans to access the medical care they need because they must travel to Cleveland for serious medical treatment.
Danny Webber, a U.S. Army veteran and former American Legion Post 221 commander, recalled the time he had to have open-heart surgery.
"I was down at the New Philly VA, and they said, 'You need your surgery now,'" Webber said.
Which meant he had to travel to Cleveland. The care, Webber said, was good, but the drive wasn't easy.
"For my wife to come up and visit me while I was up there and go back and forth, yeah, it was quite a haul," Webber said.
"In those communities, you have a lot of Korean War veterans who are in their 80s and 90s. You have a lot of Vietnam veterans that are in their 60s and 70s," said Wayne Moynihan, service officer at American Legion Post 221.
Moynihan, who said he previously served as Stark County's veterans services officer for six years, said the ability to stabilize someone in Massillon and then perhaps fly that person to Cleveland for more serious treatment could be a game changer.
"How many lives could that save?" Moynihan said. "If it saves one, isn’t it worth it?"
The mayor said while there was no timeline yet on when this might happen, it could be about six to nine months.