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Save the VA upbeat following D.C. meeting

HOT SPRINGS - Members of the Save the VA Committee who traveled to Washington, D.C. last week to meet with Veterans Adminstration officials came away with continued optimisim.

“I would give it a 7 out of 10,” said Pat Russell, a score echoed by Bob Nelson.

“I guess I would say a 6,” said Don Ackerman. “Not because of anything bad; on the contrary they didn’t throw anything at us that we didn’t have an answer for. They now realize that we are smarter than they gave us credit.

“It was not a 10, because they didn’t surrender,” he added.

This meeting, which did not include either VA Secretary Eric Shinseki or the Congressional delegation themselves, was attended by Shinseki’s chosen representative Patricia Vandenberg and high ranking staff members of each South Dakota congressional office, as well as one of the Nebraska offices.

A January meeting - including all of the main players in the question over what will ultimately take place with the VA Black Hills Health Care System’s Hot Springs Medical Center and Domiciliary - was the foundation for last week’s meeting. The script was similar, according to the Save the VA group, as the VA Administration continues to throw out numbers for construction and/or renovation, which the local group continues to discredit, using reports and findings generated by the VA itself.

“For instance,” Russell said, “past VA budgets have always stressed that new construction was the best option for its needs. That’s what was written down. Now, suddenly for its 2014 budget, it states that leasing is the best option. This is one of the things we questioned them on.”

Another was a line item that showed building a new domiciliary at a total cost of more than $30 million - including purchasing 10 acres of ground at a cost of $1.5 million.

“I guess I would like to know where that $150,000 per acre land is in Hot Springs,” Russell said with a smile. “That’s a higher cost per acre than they put down for Rapid City.”

“Plus,” interjected Ackerman, “we told them they can strike that amount; we already have the land here.”

The VA’s continued assertion that Rapid City would be a better location for a new PTSD treatment center was also met with documentation by Nelson, who cited a Office of Inspector General’s report in reference to a facility in Brecksville, Ohio,which stated that the quality of healthcare was found to be superior in a rural versus a more urban setting.

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“The biggest concession that we got at this meeting,” Nelson noted, “is that the VA now recognizes 7,000 veterans in the Scottsbluff, Neb., area, which has its Community Based Outpatient Clinic overseen by Hot Springs, that it did not acknowledge earlier. Those are veterans not counted for Hot Springs before.”

All three Save the VA represenatives gave thanks to Senator Tim Johnson and Representative Kristi Noem, both of whom they met with following the VA meeting.

“I don’t know that we changed anyone’s mind (at the VA),” Russell said. “But we continue to fight.”

“Our numbers have remained the same throughout,” Ackerman said, “while theirs keep changing. That’s a good sign, to my way of thinking.”

“Ultimately, as Ms. Vandenberg said, the Secretary will make the decision, however.”

Watch for additional information on the meeting in next week’s Star.


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