U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today joined his colleagues in introducing the Elimination of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission Act. This legislation would eliminate the commission that is tasked with identifying facilities that should be consolidated or realigned and protect the several VA facilities across South Dakota that have been so designated. In March, Thune led the South Dakota delegation in sending a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough upon the release of the VA’s recommendations for the AIR Commission, which, if implemented, would significantly reduce services in Fort Meade, Hot Springs, Sioux Falls, and Wagner.
“Ensuring that South Dakota veterans have accessible, high-quality care is a top priority for me, which is why I’ve worked hard over the years to defend and expand VA facilities and services across the state,” said Thune. “The VA’s process of developing its recommendations for the AIR Commission relied on faulty and limited assessments based on data that fails to accurately reflect the current realities of veterans in South Dakota. We cannot let the VA extinguish the important progress we have made to protect our VA facilities, which is why I will continue to fight tooth and nail against any proposals that seek to blindly reduce veterans’ access to care in our state.”
Background on the AIR Commission:
- In 2018, Congress passed the Asset and Infrastructure Review Act as part of the VA MISSION Act.
- The VA MISSION Act established a new process for the development, review, approval, and implementation of a list of recommendations for the modernization and realignment of VHA medical facilities.
- The VA MISSION Act requires the VA secretary to develop an initial list of recommendations, including the acquisition of new space, the modernization of existing space and the disposal of unneeded space. The secretary was required to publish these recommendations in the Federal Register by January 31, 2022.
- The VA MISSION Act also established an AIR Commission, a panel comprised of nine members nominated by the president and approved by the Senate, which is meant to review the recommendations submitted by the VA secretary.
- However, the panel does not yet exist as all of the nominees have yet to be assessed by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and voted on by full Senate.
- Once it is stood up and receives the department’s recommendations, the commission will conduct its own hearings and investigations, make its own recommendations, and send the recommendations to the White House.
- The AIR Commission is required to submit a final list of recommendations to the president by January 31, 2023.
- The president is to notify the commission and Congress if he approves or disapproves the list by February 15, 2023. If disapproved, the commission may revise the recommendations and submit a new list by March 15, 2023.
- The president has until March 30, 2023, to approve the commission’s initial or revised recommendations in their entirety and submit them to Congress, or the modernization and realignment process terminates.
- If the president approves the recommendations, Congress has 45 days from the date of approval to terminate the process by enacting a joint resolution of disapproval. If Congress does not enact a joint resolution of disapproval, the VA is required to implement the recommendations.
The legislation was led by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and, in addition to Thune, was co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan and Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.).
The delegation’s decade-long fight to save the Hot Springs VA culminated in October 2020 when then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie notified them that the VA had formally rescinded its earlier record of decision to realign the VA Black Hills Health Care System, which would have significantly reduced services at the Hot Springs VA Medical Center.