U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) issued the following statements after the Biden administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) informed the VA medical facilities in Hot Springs, Wagner, and Fort Meade that proposed recommendations as part of a multi-year nationwide review of VA health care infrastructure suggest they would be closing.
“For nearly a decade, I’ve fought tooth and nail to defend the Hot Springs VA and the surrounding communities,” said Thune. “I’ve stood side by side with veterans, health care professionals, and community leaders as we made our case to previous administrations about the significant benefits these facilities provide to America’s veterans throughout the multi-state area they serve. That’s why I’m extremely disappointed by the Biden administration’s proposal to close these facilities. I’m frustrated, and I’m angry, and I know these communities are too. Let me put this as plainly as I can: The VA is wrong, period. This is a massive mistake, and I will do everything within my power to show the administration, by working with the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, why it would be in everyone’s best interest, especially South Dakota’s veterans’, to immediately change course.”
“The concerns I warned against in 2018 when I voted against the VA MISSION Act have come to fruition,” said Rounds. “Veterans were told they could receive care in the community, and that’s proven not to be the case. The VA MISSION Act also included provisions to include this BRAC-style process, which we learned today will negatively impact much of rural SD. The VA MISSION Act was bad public policy then and it’s gotten no better with age. While the provisions of this BRAC will not be released publicly until March 14th – the threat has become clear to our local veterans. As a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I’ll fight like hell to make sure veterans in South Dakota receive the care they’ve earned. I call upon all veterans organizations to help us defend these services in rural South Dakota.”
“Nearly two years ago to the day, former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie came to the Hot Springs VA and announced that the VA would remain open and there would be no reduction in services for veterans,” said Johnson. “In South Dakota, promises mean something. This is a betrayal to the Hot Springs community and its veterans. If the commission is going to move forward with reducing services, they should face the people of Hot Springs, Wagner, Fort Meade, and Sioux Falls and explain why they believe these services should be scaled back. We’ve worked together to fight harmful VA decisions in the past, and we are ready do so again.”
- 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.
- In January, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced he had pushed this action to mid-March 2022. He said that this delay was due to staffing issues caused by a surge in COVID-19 cases.
- 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 submitted to the Senate for consideration and approval.
- 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 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.
Click here for an op-ed Thune wrote about his involvement with helping to save the Hot Springs facility.