Following a February 10 letter from the South Dakota delegation to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald urging the Obama administration to withdraw its budget proposal plans to reconfigure the Hot Springs VA, U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) held a delegation meeting today with the secretary to reiterate their concerns with the administration’s proposal to close the VA Medical Center. South Dakota Secretary of Veterans Affairs Larry Zimmerman, Deputy Secretary Aaron Pollard, and VA Black Hills Director Stephen DiStasio were also in attendance.
At the meeting, Secretary McDonald assured the delegation that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process remains underway and that no decision has been made at this time. The VA expects the draft EIS to be released in June of 2015, which will be followed by a public comment period. Secretary McDonald has declined numerous invitations to visit the Hot Springs campus and the delegation encouraged him once again to visit Hot Springs as soon as possible.
“Today’s meeting made clear what we’ve known for some time—the VA hasn’t been straightforward with South Dakota veterans,” said Thune. “I will hold Secretary McDonald to his pledge to reconcile the long-standing discrepancies in cost estimates and veteran impact data on the closure of the Hot Springs facility. After more than four years, I think they owe our veterans honest answers about the hiring practices and management decisions that have been made to get Hot Springs to this point. I urge the secretary to properly incorporate the new State Veterans Home in the EIS, and consider the healing potential of an expanded PTSD center in Hot Springs. The Obama administration should stop giving veterans this bureaucratic run-around and start providing answers.”
“I thank Secretary McDonald for meeting with the delegation today and following through on his personal commitment to me to remain engaged on this important issue,” said Rounds. “I appreciate his willingness to sit down with the delegation to make sure we are all working with the same data. I am also happy to have his assurance that no decision has been made on the reconfiguration of the Black Hills Health Care System. The Hot Springs VA hospital has the potential to become a national model for providing veteran care to rural veterans.”
“It’s critical that the secretary visit Hot Springs, talk to the veterans who use the facility, and see this community known as ‘Veterans Town,’ which is something I’ve pressed him on before and again today. I plan to hold him accountable for the assurances he made today: that he will visit Hot Springs after the EIS is completed but before any decision is made,” said Rep. Noem. “While it was good to hear assurances that the secretary plans to visit, the VA failed to offer veterans and the Hot Springs community any more clarity on the significant data discrepancies that have marred this entire process – nor did the agency give any certainty that the outcome of the EIS was not determined before the process even began. Our veterans deserve answers as well as a fair an unbiased EIS process. I am deeply concerned that they have not received either thus far. I strongly urge the secretary to consider the alternatives put forward by veterans in and around Hot Springs and will hold him to his promise to get to a point where we can all work off the same set of facts.”