Hot Springs recently received some long-awaited news: their VA medical facility, which so many South Dakota veterans depend on, will stay open. If I’m being honest, it was not the news I expected to hear during my latest trip to “The Veterans Town,” but I share in the community’s excitement after this long-fought battle has finally been won. I want to thank Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, who accepted the congressional delegation’s invitation to meet with stakeholders from throughout the region. They told powerful stories, and the secretary, to his credit, listened.
There’s a lot more to the story, though, and you have to go back nearly 10 years to fully appreciate what this recent news means to the community. The story spans two presidential administrations and four VA secretaries, but it all starts with the Obama administration’s 2011 proposal to “realign” the facility. That’s a fancy Washington term for “shut it down.” I knew what the facility meant to the community – after all, it’s nearly synonymous with Hot Springs itself – so there was no way it was going to shut down, at least while I had something to say about it. I was joined in the fight by a spirited community of veterans, VA employees and Hot Springs neighbors, and my colleagues in the delegation.
The ultimate goal has always been to take care of our veterans – there’s nothing more important than that. So, we went to work right away trying to convince then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the previous administration to come to a different conclusion. It became clear pretty quickly that this decision was already made, and it seemed like they were essentially trying to kill the facility by starving it of resources.
In 2014, and every year since then, my legislation to prevent the closure of the Hot Springs facility has been adopted by Congress and signed into law. Until there was actually a national realignment strategy in place, I didn’t believe it was appropriate for Hot Springs to be on the chopping block. And today, the VA has yet to complete those plans, which has kept the facility’s doors open – but it has always been under a cloud of uncertainty.
Four years ago, rather than shutting the doors completely, the VA announced plans to move substantial parts of the Hot Springs facility to Rapid City, including the vital post-traumatic stress disorder program hosted in the historic domiciliary. While Washington bureaucrats may have thought the plan sounded good on paper, I didn’t think it was a viable option because it would leave a deep void in the “The Veterans Town,” in which South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming veterans receive the care they need and deserve. So, the fight continued.
I’ve always believed in a collaborative approach to solve this problem, again, in order to fully serve the veterans in Hot Springs. For years, I’ve been trying to get the VA to simply listen to the community and hear what a closure would mean to everyone who depends on the medical center. We finally got that opportunity in 2016 when then-VA Secretary Bob McDonald visited Hot Springs, but the facility’s future remained threatened the following year after he signed the record of decision to finalize the misguided realignment.
Fast-forward to today. When I heard Secretary Wilkie would be traveling to Hot Springs in early March, a longstanding request from the delegation, I wanted to ensure we didn’t let this opportunity pass us by. After I learned the secretary’s original itinerary lacked any substantive interaction with the community, I organized an effort that ultimately resulted in the secretary modifying his schedule so he could hear firsthand from veterans and stakeholders. That meeting turned out to be the pivotal moment in this story.
To hear the secretary say the facility will not close and that he will look at what can be done to create a process that allows buy-in from our veterans, that is collaborative and not driven by a top-down bureaucratic process, that actually looks at the needs of our veterans – well, it was something I’ll never forget.
As simple as it might sound, to finally have an administration that was just willing to listen – to sit down at a table and have a conversation – it’s made all the difference in the world. Secretary Wilkie’s visit will be long-remembered, and the certainty and peace of mind he’s brought to the community is something I’m excited and humbled to have played a small role in helping achieve. The real credit goes to Hot Springs – to the community and the veterans the facility serves. This was a big win and a battle worth fighting.