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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki decided to proceed with an Environmental Impact Statement on the 2011 proposal to close the Hot Springs VA. The EIS, which will take from 10-to-18 months, will address the affects of moving forward with the closure on veterans' health care and the economic impact upon the region.

Hot Springs Star file photo

Secretary Shinseki calls for EIS to begin process

HOT SPRINGS – In a meeting with South Dakota Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune, along with Representative Kristi Noem, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced late Tuesday that he is proceeding with the 2011 plan to begin shuttering the VA Black Hills Health Care Systems campus in Hot Springs.

Shinseki told the delegation that he was instigating an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the first step required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) stating that federal agencies are required to ‘determine if their proposed actions have significant environmental effects and to consider the environmental and related social and economic effects of their proposed actions.’

The EIS procedure is expected to be a 10-to-18 month process, according to BHHCS director Steve DiStasio. (See related story on Page A11)

EIS preparation includes public involvement and the publication of notice of intent, combined with a formal scoping process and federally mandated timelines for taking public comment, review of the plan and waiting periods.

At the conclusion of the process, the Record of Decision, which is reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), is a legally binding document.

As the BHHCS’s Hot Springs campus is a National Historic Property and a National Historic Landmark, the VA is also required to conduct consultation under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Section 106 requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of projects on historic properties.

VA BHHCS will engage a contractor to assist with all aspects of the NEPA and NHPA processes, including scoping, consultation, public involvement, EIS preparation and finalization.

The decision, more than two years since the announcement of the plan to close the Hot Springs VA Medical Center and move PTSD and Substance Abuse Programs to Rapid City, was met with disappointment from the congressional delegation and by the local Save the VA Committee.

“Today’s meeting was very disappointing for veterans and the community of Hot Springs,” said Senator Thune in a press release.

“Throughout this process, my first priority has been to ensure that the quality of service and care for our veterans would not be compromised in any way, yet today’s announcement ignores the pleas of veterans and financial analysis of the Save the VA committee.”

Save the VA Committee Chairman Patrick Russell also expressed the group’s disappointment with Shinseki’s decision.

“As a veteran, I feel the sting of another broken promise to ‘Care for Him Who Shall Have Borne the Battle,’ Russell said in a statement from Save the VA. “This is just another in a long line of broken contracts with rural veterans to provide health care in a timely manner. It is distressing to think that General Shinseki will discount the voices of the rural veterans who look to him for leadership and support.”

Russell noted that closing the Hot Springs facility will mean “veterans will travel farther to wait in longer lines to receive their care. Or they will be forced to obtain their care in private sector facilities that do not have the capacity to care for more patients or the knowledge, skills and abilities to diagnose or treat illness and injury common to wounded warriors.”

Representative Noem released a statement as well following the meeting with Sec. Shinseki.

“This is not the decision any of us wanted to see the Secretary make, nor was it the decision our veterans and the Hot Springs community deserved,” Noem wrote. “Ensuring the Hot Springs VA can continue to deliver the best possible healthcare to South Dakota veterans has been a top priority during my time in Congress.  I am deeply disappointed that the VA is now looking to move forward on a plan that many South Dakota veterans are adamantly opposed to and that could jeopardize the care those who have fought for our country need and deserve.”

Russell pointed out that in the BHHCS revelation, in December of 2011, it was stated that Fort Meade, the other major BHHCS campus, will be targeted in five to 10 years.

“Then our veterans will have to travel to Sioux Falls, Minneapolis, Omaha, Montana or Denver to receive their care at a VA facility,” Russell stated.

“And the taxpayers will be burdened with ever increasing costs to build and

maintain new facilities when they could have provided those services in

structures that already exist.

Senator Johnson released a statement as well, saying “I am disappointed in the VA’s decision.  Over the past two years, the Save the VA group, local veterans, and the delegation have shared their concerns, raised important questions, and suggested alternatives.  Unfortunately, the VA has decided, over the objections of the delegation and local veterans, to move forward on the path to restructure the Black Hills Health Care System.

“While today’s news is discouraging, this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Sen. Johnson continued. “I encourage veterans and Hot Springs residents to fully engage in the EIS process.  I will continue working to provide South Dakota’s and our nation’s veterans with quality, accessible health care.”

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Russell closed by saying “General Shinseki has forsaken his rural veterans. We must look elsewhere for leadership. As stated by Douglas MacArthur many years ago in his farewell speech we will “just fade away” and leave behind us that trail of broken promises.”

Hot Springs VA Timeline:

January 4, 2012 the delegation sent a letter to the VA Secretary asking a series of questions about the VA’s plans. A response to this letter was received on March 8, 2012.

February 29, 2012, the delegation sent a letter to the VA Secretary requesting an extension of the comment period by no less than 30 days after the final Freedom of Information Act request had been answered and all answers to the questions raised in the January 4th letter were received. In response to the request for additional time to provide feedback regarding the proposals, the VA extended the period for input to April 30, 2012.

April 25, 2012, the delegation sent another letter to the VA Secretary asking for a 30-day extension since at that time, the VA had yet to produce a cost-benefit analysis for their proposal. On May 22, 2012 the delegation received a response from Secretary Shinseki extending the comment period through June 30.

June 12, 2012, the VA provided a cost-benefit analysis to the community. Unfortunately, after several meetings between the Black Hills VA and the Hot Springs “Save the VA Committee” over the summer, the delegation felt compelled to send another letter on October 2 to Secretary Shinseki expressing disappointment in how the negotiations had progressed, and asking that the Secretary meet with interested parties in Hot Springs. This letter was also signed by members of the Wyoming and Nebraska delegations. While Secretary Shinseki denied this request in a letter on October 2, 2012, he agreed to meet with stakeholders on January 28, 2013.

May 6, 2013, Congressional staff and the Save the VA Committee met with VA Central Office staff to discuss discrepancies in VA data.

May 17, 2013, the delegation sent a letter to Secretary Shinseki regarding outstanding concerns left unanswered at the May 6th meeting, including what seems to be a systematic dismantling of the Hot Springs campus, the VA not factoring in an estimated 3,000 tribal veterans in its proposal, and inflated cost estimates for keeping the current VA presence in Hot Springs. This letter was also signed by members of the Wyoming and Nebraska delegations.

December 13, 2013, the delegation sent a letter to Secretary Shinseki calling for him to return Hot Springs’ BHHCS to full operation following the lack of leadership and breach of good faith by the VA over the past two years.

January 7, 2014, Secretary Shinseki announced that the VA will move forward with its proposal, initiating an environmental impact statement phase, regardless of outstanding concerns from stakeholders.

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