The Department of Veterans Affairs has taken another step toward possibly closing the medical center in Hot Springs, a decision that has upset members of South Dakota's congressional delegation as well as residents of the Fall River County community.
The state's congressional delegation said it was notified Tuesday of the decision by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that the VA is moving forward with an environmental impact study to determine whether to close the century-old Hot Springs facility — a medical treatment and rehabilitation center with in-patient and nursing home units — and moving the operations to Rapid City.
The announcement comes more than two years after VA officials said in December 2011 that it was considering closing the medical center in Hot Springs.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said the VA continues to move in a direction opposed by many veterans in the state.
"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," she said in a statement.
The VA says an economic analysis has shown that restructuring its facilities in western South Dakota would be less costly and more efficient than trying to fix the aging facility in Hot Springs, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The environmental impact study is required by law to look at the plan's environmental, social and economic effects.
South Dakota lawmakers and a group formed to support the Hot Springs facility, known as Save the VA, question the economic analysis.
"The announcement ignores the pleas of veterans and financial analysis of the Save the VA committee," Sen. John Thune, R.-S.D., said in a statement.
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Patrick Russell, chairman of the Save the VA Committee, said no one should assume the hospital is already lost. Save the VA has already put forward one alternative to save the hospital, and Russell said the group has drafted a dozen papers with other ideas.
"The battle has just begun," he said.
On a Wednesday conference call with media, Steve DiStasio, director of the VA Black Hills Health Care System, said that the impact study will look at many alternatives. The study will include multiple public hearings in different locations where people can bring their ideas.
"We don't know yet what the outcome of that process will be," he said.
DiStasio said he expects that the impact study will be a "10- to 18-month process."
"By no means does this signal that a decision has been made or will be made in the next few months," he said.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said news of the study is discouraging but that "this is a marathon, not a sprint. I encourage veterans and Hot Springs residents to fully engage in the (study) process."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation said in November that the plan to close Hot Springs medical center is an example of Veterans Affairs ignoring federal law regarding historic buildings and wasting taxpayer money by erecting new facilities instead of renovating old ones.
The VA said it must balance its main mission of providing modern facilities for veterans with its responsibility to preserve historic places.