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Adrian Smith in Chadron July 2014

Representative Adrian Smith (left) was in Chadron to meet with veterans last week.

Record photo by Kerri Rempp

Veterans’ issues, specifically revolving around the Hot Springs Veterans Hospital, were the subject of two meetings last week.

Representative Adrian Smith was in Chadron Friday to meet with veterans and the proposed closure of the Hot Springs, S.D., facility dominated the conversation. None of the roughly dozen people in the room – veterans and their relatives – are satisfied with the lack of information surrounding the plan for Hot Springs and why it was selected for closure.

“I can’t believe a century of investment can be summarily dismissed,” one vet remarked.

Smith told the group he and other Congress members have been seeking answers to the same questions but have not been successful.

“We’ve been begging for more information from the VA,” Smith said.

Jon Hansen, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Chadron State College and a veteran himself, said he is concerned that the number of patients being treated at Hot Springs is being downscaled in order to justify the closure. Closing the facility, he said, is not just a Hot Springs issue; veterans from the Pine Ridge Reservation and from across the Panhandle of Nebraska utilize the services.

Success is not treating 10 more patients today than yesterday, he continued; it’s providing quality care to every veteran, whether their needs require 10 minutes or 30 minutes, and that care needs to be available within a reasonable distance from their homes.

“This is about people, not about the numbers,” Hansen said.

There are more than 700 veterans in Dawes County alone, with more than 100 of those being students at CSC. Moving services to Fort Meade at Sturgis, S.D., is causing a hardship for families and friends who take veterans to their appointments because they must take additional time off work and sometimes stay overnight, veterans said. It’s also costing the VA. One veteran said travel pay to Hot Springs equaled $53 a trip; the VA now cuts a check for over $100 for trips to Fort Meade.

While the Hot Springs facility is still open, many services have been removed.

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“Somebody’s trying to kill our VA,” said one vet.

At last week’s Dawes County commissioners meeting, Dawes County veterans service officer Alan Connell listed several procedures that are no longer available in Hot Springs: cataract surgery, MRI; colonoscopy, audiology, ultrasound, stress test are among them.

Connell addressed the issue of the Hot Springs facility during a request to increase his secretary’s hours to 35 per week and his driver’s hours to 20 per week. With the decreasing number of procedures that take place in Hot Springs, it is taking the VSO driver longer to take veterans to and from Fort Meade. Connell fills in the gap when his driver is out of hours, and when his secretary is out of hours, the office in Chadron is forced to close if he is on the road with a vet.

The commissioners approved an alternative plan, increasing the driver’s hours to 28 per week, which will allow Connell to remain in the office more. The secretary’s hours will remain the same, and the plan will be reviewed in four months to determine how it is working.

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