South Dakota legislators push back on V.A. commission, say rural healthcare is unfairly targeted
WASHINGTON — South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, along with West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, launched a new effort to get rid of the agency that decides what V.A. facilities should be consolidated or realigned.
The senators have re-introduced a bill to eliminate the A.I.R. – or the Asset and Infrastructure Review – Commission. The nominees for that commission haven’t even been approved yet – but the new legislation would prevent its formation.
Rounds says the A.I.R. Commission was bad public policy when the bill was first introduced in 2018, and it has not improved with age.
The decision on where to get care, he says, should be up to individual. It’s “the best of both worlds,” especially for female veterans.
“In my opinion, let’s get back to what was the intent in the first place of care of the community,” Rounds says. “Let’s allow those veterans once again to access those positions that they want to in their local communities. And the V.A. should pick up that bill.”
Sen. Manchin says the A.I.R. Commission is skewed against rural states, like his state of West Virginia, and South Dakota. Rounds agrees, saying the “flawed” data the V.A. is using to justify downgrades and closures unfairly affects rural communities.
“It makes sense that if you’re in urban areas, you might have more veterans, even if you have a very high percentage of the population in rural areas that are also veterans,” Rounds says. “We don’t want to see the clinics closed in Wagner, South Dakota; we don’t want to see the emergency room closed in Sioux Falls; we don’t want to see the Hot Springs closed…certainly don’t want to see in Sturgis our facilities significantly reduced in size.”
Rounds says the time is now to fix the problems with the A.I.R. Commission – or as he called it colloquially, the “error” commission.
He’s not the only South Dakota legislator critical of the A.I.R. Commission; Congressman Dusty Johnson recently visited with veterans to address the Commissions’ recommendations to close or reduce services in places like Hot Springs.
“I understand that the V.A. of the future needs to look different than the V.A. of the past. The needs of our veterans are addressed likely different – dramatically different – than they were in the past. But a number of these recommendations are frankly, based on really, really bad data. I mean, the A.I.R. Commission, their consultant indicated that they expected the need for inpatient mental health services out here in West was going to go down 14%,” Rep. Johnson says. “Anybody who has talked to any veteran who has been deployed in the last 20 years understands that they are going to need more mental health services in the future, not less. If you’re going to have bad data like that. I do think that under it really undercuts the legitimacy of this whole process.”
Senator John Thune is also a co-sponsor of the bill. In March, he sent a letter to the V.A. expressing frustration with those recommendations to the A.I.R. Commission, along with Sen. Rounds and Rep. Johnson.
Both Senator Rounds and Representative Johnson say they’ll continue to fight so that veterans don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to receive care.