Rounds says Senate now has a plan to stop proposed V.A. closures
Rounds: "Our facilities right now, as of today, should be safe."
HOT SPRINGS, S.D. — Earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs made a recommendation to downsize V.A. facilities in Hot Springs and Fort Meade, drawing criticism from local veterans and legislators alike. But on Monday, South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds announced they have found an alternative, and it’s a sigh of relief for South Dakota’s veterans.
Their health care facilities, according to Sen. Mike Rounds, are safe.
“We will, as a group, not allow for the nomination process to move forward for the individuals who would have been nominated by the president to create that commission,” Sen. Rounds says. “If the commission is not going to be established, they can’t make a recommendation.”
Rounds says it’s a permanent solution.
“This ‘error’ commission, which was supposed to expire basically in March of this coming year, will not have enough time to go through and to review the recommendations that would have closed not just facilities here at Hot Springs,” Rounds says.
Sen. Rounds says the bipartisan support negotiated in the Senate made this security a reality.
“We’ve negotiated through with [Sen. Tester] and a number of other members on both sides of the aisle who have all agreed to support this position because they understand that the facilities for veterans have to be there, not just in urban areas, but in rural areas as well.”
Those bipartisan supporters include Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
WHAT IS THE AIR COMMISSION?
The MISSION Act of 2018 required the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct an Asset and Infrastructure Review, or AIR, among other things. The AIR Commission would be a panel of nine experts approved by the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (and then voted on by the full Senate) to evaluate and review facilities and services nationwide. South Dakota’s congressional delegation pushed back, saying the appointees were not required to have experience in rural healthcare. The panel has not been established and does not currently exist. The MISSION Act requires the commission to submit their recommendations to the President for his review no later than January 31, 2023.
Hot Springs Mayor Bob Nelson — overwhelmed with emotion — says the town, since its inception, has always been about America’s veterans. In 2014, the state legislature passed a resolution declaring it the veterans town of South Dakota.
Instead of worrying about access to care for their residents, now they can focus on the care itself.
“We now see a way forward to continue that care,” Mayor Nelson says. “We do it well; we don’t think anybody does it better than us.”
It was a team effort — not just a bipartisan Senate agreement — but with support from the community as well. Groups like the Save the V.A. Committee fought to protect access for their rural veterans.
Patrick Russell, the co-chair of the Save the V.A. Committee, says, “It seems disturbing to me that the V.A. should want to start dismantling veteran care in this day and age, with all of the events that are occurring in Europe and in the Middle East. They make it sound like we will have no more veterans within a few years. Their argument is that the veterans are dying off of the World War II and Korean War, and Vietnam veterans are dying at a pace were these services are no longer available. What they fail to tell you is that war is a part of our history and our life. There will be more veterans. If we dismantle the V.A. today, what will they come to for their care? What will be done for the veterans of the future?”
Local veterans stepped in to show their thanks to Sen. Rounds, and to shed some light on why this proposed closure was so shocking to the community.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran, and there’s a couple other Vietnam veterans out there in front of me. One thing we had that is very important to us today is the fact that when we came home, they took away our victory, and we live with that, and that was hard,” says Donald Ackerman, Sr., a local veteran and member of the Save the V.A. Committee. “We have four generations who have served in the Middle East, and they have taken away their victory. It takes a while for that toll to weigh on your shoulders. This V.A. and every other V.A. across this country needs to be there for our young ones when they go.”
WHAT WERE THE RECOMMENDATIONS FOR WESTERN SOUTH DAKOTA?
The 84-page report of the V.A.’s recommendations to the AIR Commission says that because Rapid City is the largest population center in Western South Dakota, it should be the primary location for veterans services.
“With 21,332 enrollees in the market in Fiscal Year 2019, retaining two VAMC’s in the small communities of Fort Meade and Hot Springs with nearly the same service offerings (outpatient, inpatient medical, CLC and RRTP) is not sustainable,” the report reads.
The recommendations would replace the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Centers (VAMC’s) in Hot Springs and Fort Meade with Multi-Specialty Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (MS CBOC’s).
Back in March, South Dakota’s entire congressional delegation wrote to V.A. Secretary Denis McDonough in opposition of the recommendations. The trio called out the AIR Commission, saying the proposals would impose hardships for rural and tribal veterans.
“Removing services from the Hot Springs and Fort Meade facilities, and consolidating health care services in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, would substantially reduce high-quality care options for those veterans who have benefited from access to rural VA services in South Dakota.”
Gov. Noem also joined in the fight, saying in a tweet, “[T]hey are defunding our veterans by recommending closures and downsizing of VA facilities across the country.”
You can read the entire VA Commission Report by clicking here. The information on West River begins on page 74.
It’s a fight that, at least for now, appears to be over.
Looking to the future, the V.A. has millions of dollars planned in capital improvements to the Hot Springs facility over the next three years, something Sen. Rounds says we’ll have to “wait and see” if they’re serious about or not.
As for Rapid City, a new 49,000-square-foot facility is currently in the works at the corner of Catron Boulevard and Mount Rushmore Road. The new outpatient clinic will include primary care, mental health, specialty care, women’s health, pharmacy care, audiology, laboratory services, and physical therapy. It will also have a 54-bed community living center and 46-bed residential rehabilitation treatment program. The plan is for it to be operational and accepting patients in early 2023.