VA secretary outlines future for Hot Springs, Rapid City
Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, has decided to move forward with the reconfiguration of the VA Black Hills Health Care System.
VA closure put on hold
By John D. Taylor
Community’s story has been told, and the VA finally listened
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) announced Thursday afternoon, May 4, that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin has decided to put the reconfiguration of the VA’s Black Hills Health Care System “on stay,” while the VA re-evaluates all of its facilities across the U.S.
The focus, according to Rounds’ take on Shulkin’s comments, is which of these facilities provides the best care for veterans and why.
This news is especially good for Hot Springs – particularly the Save the VA (STVA) group – which has fought long and hard to retain the historic, 110-year-old Battle Mountain Sanitarium VA facility, as a premier health care facility for the nation’s veterans.
Hot Springs VA is where many veterans have healed, these veterans have told the VA in numerous meetings about the facility’s future. One of Hot Springs’ specialties has long been a cure for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the drug and alcohol abuse issues that often come with this. Other facilities lacked the environment Hot Springs has, veterans told the VA, and only in Hot Springs were they able to find wholeness.
The Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS) thought otherwise, however.
For nearly 20 years the VA, according to veterans, long-time VA employees and administrators and community members, tried to inflict a “death by 1,000 cuts” on the Battle Mountain facility.
Then, following a December 2016 visit by Obama administration VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the VA agreed to reconfigure BHHCS and essentially shutter Hot Springs.
This move would have left 100 hospital jobs in the city, while taking 300 healthcare jobs north to a new Rapid City facility.
In the eyes of BHHCS, this move was supposed to serve more veterans.
However, STVA and the community fought back, engaging the South Dakota congressional delegation, the American Legion and others in their cause. The results of this showed themselves May 4.
Rounds said that when South Dakota’s Congressional delegation – U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem – met again on May 4 with Shulkin to discuss his reconsidering the Hot Springs VA decision, Shulkin agreed to put the closing on hold while the VA conducts a nationwide revue of all of its facilities to determine which provide veterans with best care.
Rounds, in May 4 press release, said he would only touch on this subject lightly, because a more extensive briefing was being prepared jointly by the South Dakota congressional delegation. However, he had this to say about Hot Springs in specific:
“We appreciate the fact that Sec. Shulkin came and agreed to revisit the issues from the previous administration where they had decided to close the Hot Springs campus,” Rounds said. “In this particular case, Sec. Shulkin has had a chance to look at it, and what he has told us is first of all his focus is on going to be on quality of care for veterans. And he thinks there should be a new evaluation process.”
“He has also told us that while nobody throughout the United States is going to be off the hook with the threat of a possible change as he goes through, he could not understand why they could look at Hot Springs – which has proven to be a five-star facility – and that we were going to close that facility without looking at other facilities that were not providing near the quality of service.”
BHHCS on May 4 confirmed Shulkin’s decision to “defer” the decision to reconfigure BHHCS, while the VA undertakes “a system-wide look at how to ensure Veterans are receiving the best care, where and when they need it.” BHHCS “will be part of the review of that design,” according to BHHCS Public Affairs Officer Teresa Forbes
“This will allow veterans to continue to receive high quality care that they have been receiving to date at Hot Springs, delivered with a holistic approach. This decision also will include allowing Veterans a choice of where they receive their health care,” she noted.
The current Veterans Choice Program will expire in December of 2017, Forbes said, and the VA is working with Congress to pass the needed legislation to “modernize how Veterans receive their care.”
In the meantime, BHHCS is moving forward with expanding the Rapid City Community-based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) and activation of the Members Services National Call Center in Hot Springs.
Shulkin meanwhile, at a U.S. House of Representatives VA hearing on May 3, said the VA is seeking to close more than 1,100 VA facilities as it develops plans to allow more veterans to receive medical care in the private sector. Shulkin said the VA identified more than 430 buildings that are vacant, and another 735 “underutilized” buildings that were costing the federal government $25 million a year.
Shulkin said the VA would work with Congress to prioritize those buildings for closure and was considering whether to follow the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process the Pentagon has used to decide which of its underused military bases to shutter.
An internal VA document obtained by The Associated Press pointed to aging buildings as prime candidates for closure. About 57 percent of all VA facilities were more than 50 years old, this document noted, and most of the 431 buildings VA said were vacant were built 90 or more years ago. The VA document did not specify the locations.
Although President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint calls for a 6 percent VA funding increase, Shulkin has made clear the VA (370,000 employees) will have to operate more efficiently. The department recently put hiring restrictions on some 4,000 positions despite a federal hiring freeze lifting and left open the possibility of “near-term” and “long-term workforce reductions.”
Shulkin is also putting together a broader proposal by fall to expand the VA’s Choice program of private-sector care.
STVA member, American Legion member and veterans advocate Don Ackerman, while happy with the news, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the VA’s decision.