U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., announced Monday that the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has found a way to stop the proposed closure of several U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, including the hospitals at Hot Springs and Fort Meade.
Speaking before a crowd of veterans just outside of the Hot Springs facility, Rounds said the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission, which makes the recommendations to close VA facilities, would be unable to carry out their function if the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs does not confirm nominations to the commission.
“A group of some of us who are on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee are announcing today that we will, as a group, not allow for the nominations process to move forward for the individuals who would have been nominated by the president to create that commission,” Rounds said. “If the commission is not going to be established, they can’t make a recommendation. Therefore, our facilities — right now, as of today — should be safe. They should not be closed.”
Rounds said the effort to not allow nominations to the AIR Commission is bipartisan. He said he has worked with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Rounds also said the effort to keep VA hospitals open was a team effort.
“It’s a team effort of local veterans who have made it very clear that regardless if you are in a rural area or in an urban area, the cost of war says that for those individuals that need assistance, we have made a commitment and we should honor that commitment,” he said.
Hot Springs Mayor Bob Nelson said he was overjoyed with the announcement and with Rounds’ commitment to keeping the VA hospital open.
“Hot Springs has always been about America’s veterans, honoring them and serving them,” Nelson said. “And after 115 years of care that this facility has been providing to our veterans, we now see a way forward to continue that care. We do it well. We don’t think anybody does it better.”
Pat Russell, who represents the Hot Springs Save the VA Committee, said Rounds’ announcement of the Senate partnership to deny nominations to the AIR Commission is an instrumental step toward further action to reform the VA.
“It seems disturbing to me that the VA should want to start dismantling veteran care in this day and age,” Russell said. “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… What they fail to tell you is that war is a part of our history and our life. There will be more veterans.”
In March, the VA made a preliminary recommendation to close Hot Springs and Fort Meade. The preliminary recommendation also named the Sioux Falls VA hospital’s emergency services department and a clinic in Wagner to the list of potential closures.
The VA said the recommendations, which would be presented to President Joe Biden in 2023 after a year-long public comment period, will be to relocate the outpatient mental health services to a new Rapid City facility and transition both Fort Meade and Hot Springs into community-based outpatient clinics.
The review report stems from the VA MISSION Act, which was approved in 2018. It established a new process to develop, review, approve and implement a list of recommendations to modernize and realign the Veterans Health Affairs medical facilities.
The review included looking at the changing needs of veterans, where needs are going in the next 10 to 20 years, how health care delivery can change, including in ambulatory care, virtual care and telecare, and other methodologies.
The VA was originally going to publish the report in January in the Federal Register, but VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced he would push the publication to mid-March due to staffing issues caused by COVID-19.
The new facility in Rapid City would be separate from the outpatient clinic currently being built by Dream Design International and slated to open in fall 2023.
Rounds said Monday that if the AIR Commission does not have Senate-approved nominees to sit on the commission, then they will be unable to make a recommendation to the president in 2023.
“It actually should be a permanent solution,” Rounds said. “This AIR 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 caused (the closure)… Those types of activities now will not happen based upon an AIR Committee report.”
According to a news release from U.S. Senate issued late Monday, Rounds and Tester were joined in support for halting AIR Commission nominees by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D, 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 Lujan, D-N.M., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
“As Senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that upholds our obligations to America’s veterans. We believe the recommendations put forth to the AIR Commission are not reflective of that goal, and would put veterans in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage, which is why we are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move forward,” Tester, Rounds and Manchin said in a joint news release following Rounds’ announcement.
“The Commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure, and together we remain dedicated to providing the Department with the resources and tools it needs to continue delivering quality care and earned services to veterans in 21st century facilities — now and into the future.”
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