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HOT SPRINGS - One after another, speakers at a public hearing last Wednesday related stories of poor management and reduced services at the VA’s Hot Springs facility — all in an attempt to save it from closure.

The stories came forth at the first of what will ultimately be 10 public scoping meetings for an Environmental Impact Statement for the VA Black Hills Health Care System’s proposal for veterans health care.

Nearly 200 people attended the meeting, conducted by representatives of Labat Environmental Inc., the company chosen to complete the EIS.

The VA proposes to replace the BHHCS Hot Springs Medical Center with a Community Based Outpatient Clinic. Also part of the proposal is the relocation of the Hot Springs Domiciliary’s PTSD and Substance Abuse Treatment programs to Rapid City.

At the same time, Labat representatives will be seeking how the proposed action would take place beneath the umbrella of the National Historic Preservation Act. Most of the buildings on the Hot Springs campus have been deemed a National Historic Landmark, and are a part of the National Historic Register.

Comments were taken from nearly two dozen people, most of whom were either veterans being served by the Hot Springs VA campus or former employees.

Many noted what they called a systematic erosion of services at the Hot Springs VA, blaming it on poor management of the facility after it was integrated with the Fort Meade VA in Sturgis in 1995.

Vietnam veteran and Hot Springs city councilman Carl Atchley said he had received treatment at VA centers across the country and received the very best of care in Hot Springs.

“Then, because of management, not the staff, this VA has become a skeleton of what it once was,” Atchley said.

Retired VA radiologist Garry Strauser listed nearly a dozen services that have been lost over the past 15 years, including surgery and all cardio-related care and rehabilitation and noted that instead of having a trained radiologist overseeing diagnostic services, that position is now filled by a dietetic person.

Many former employees spoke about what they see as a means to achieve the points in the proposal, by eliminating services to justify closure.

“All of the things being done are working to support their plan,” said Barb Sharp, who said she retired after 28 years at the VA. “No one wants this moved and yet they continue to want to move it.”

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None who spoke were in favor of the proposed closure and some became emotional when sharing stories of care of their loved ones at the facility.

Mary Pederson shared how her late husband had been mistreated after being transferred to a Rapid City hospital when treatment was unavailable in Hot Springs due to cutbacks.

At the close of her remarks, Pederson turned to BHHCS director Steve DiStasio, who attended the meeting.

“I highly resent the condolence card that you sent after my husband’s death,” she said. “It’s your fault that he suffered in filth in the hospital in Rapid City,” she said in a voice shaken by emotion.

Several people commented that an alternative offered by the Save the VA group in Hot Springs would be preferable to the proposal forwarded by the VA. That alternative would establish a national PTSD treatment facility and would create a business for veterans to operate and learn job skill while receiving treatment.

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