A federal veterans care facility has been located in Hot Springs for more than a century, but relations between the community and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have deteriorated since the VA announced in December that it would close most of its facilities in Hot Springs.
Since then, Hot Springs has been trying to negotiate with the VA to keep at least some of the VA's facilities open. In June, the Save the VA committee presented an alternative plan to create a post-traumatic stress disorder treatment center and expand outpatient clinic services at the existing VA facilities. The proposal also includes education and job training for veterans, along with the PTSD treatment center at the VA’s domiciliary, as a national demonstration project.
In addition, Save the VA suggested starting up a “Veterans Industries” company that would develop a product line, splitting proceeds between the VA to offset treatment costs and for community development projects in Hot Springs.
However, a Sept. 10 meeting between the committee and Black Hills Health Care System broke down when VA officials said they could not negotiate on its plan.
South Dakota's congressional delegation sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki expressing disappointment in the breakdown in negotiations and stating that "trust has been lost, relationships damaged, and many fear that the actions of the BHHCS over the past ten months were all for show."
The letter was signed by South Dakota Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem, Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, and Nebraska Sen. Mike Hohanns and Rep. Adrian Smith. The senators and representatives are asking to meet with Shinseki to discuss the VA's plans and that the meeting take place in Hot Springs.
Throughout this process, Hot Springs officials, Save the VA members, veterans and members of Congress have complained that the VA has not been acting with full transparency and has not been willing to listen to area veterans and local citizens about their concerns about the VA's plans to pull out of Hot Springs.
The VA provided little documentation for its reorganization plan when it was announced. It was only because of public pressure that the VA did an economic analysis of its proposal, which, naturally, justified its plans as a cost savings.
The latest development strengthens the belief that the VA intends to follow through on its plan to abandon Hot Springs without regard to local concerns. Black Hills Health Care System director Steve DiStasio promised to study an alternative proposal by Save the VA, but now the VA won't even pretend to take it seriously.
It will take more than a strongly worded letter from members of Congress to shake the VA from its reorganization plan for Black Hills Health Care System. It seems obvious that the VA has been misleading local, state and congressional leaders and the Hot Springs community from the beginning. Congressional oversight may be the only option that remains.