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Efforts continue to Save the VA

HOT SPRINGS – Attending one of the recent weekly meetings of the Save the VA group, the same word comes up over and over.

Disappointment.

It is echoed in the words of the elected officials who made the early push to have the Veterans Administration acknowledge that the ‘proposal’ launched Dec. 12, 2011, was filled with flaws, relating both to veterans population and costs to renovate the existing facility.

“I have been disappointed with the lack of leadership and breach of good faith by the VA over the past two years,” said Senator John Thune in an e-mail request for comment. “The VA introduced their proposal without providing any cost-benefit analysis to support the changes they are seeking. It was as if they knew what they wanted from the start, regardless of the cost or how it might impact our veterans.”

Representative Kristi Noem echoed Thune’s sentiments, saying, “Over the past two years, I have had growing concerns that the Veterans Administration has systematically neglected the historic properties in its care to the detriment of the veterans they serve.”

This Thursday will mark two years since VA Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS) director Stephen DiStasio and Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 23 director Janet Murphy held a press conference following meetings with veterans and VA staff in Hot Springs. At that time, they presented a five-year proposal to remove most medical services and all of the PTSD and Substance Abuse programs from the landmark campus.

The proposal was to build a new Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Hot Springs, while contracting with local physicians and health care facilities for other needed services. Also planned was moving the PTSD and Abuse programs to space that the VA would lease in Rapid City.

An outraged community and numerous veterans and their organizations immediately went to work, holding meetings and forming committees as the proposal was dismantled piece-by-piece and was shown to be flawed. Those meetings led to the creation of the Save the VA Campaign, which within a month of the announcement had more than a dozen committees that met weekly to build the case to retain services in Hot Springs.

A visit to Hot Springs by S.D. Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune, along with Representative Kristi Noem brought national recognition to the issue and 2012 ended with the promise of a meeting with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

That meeting took place in January of 2013, providing local Save the VA committee members a chance to sit face-to-face with the Secretary, in a meeting attended by the elected representatives of not only South Dakota, but Wyoming and Nebraska as well.

But since that time, with the exception of a follow-up meeting in May with Patricia Vandenberg, an assistant deputy for Policy and Planning for the VA, there has been a resounding silence from Washington, from the VA and, to some extent the congressional delegation.

“We are looking for a positive response,” said Hot Springs Mayor Don De Vries, a member of the Save the VA committee that still meets each week. “But we get frustrated because we are getting no response at all.”

While the story has grown quieter over the past 12 months, a group of 14 members – many coming from the original committees – still hold weekly meetings to discuss strategy and the next step to be taken in the battle.

“We are working diligently,” said Stu Marty, another committee member, “doing anything we can do to find a niche.”

The committee insists that while the ball is definitely in the VA’s court, it is still maintaining an offensive approach to the problem. “We’re still moving forward,” said committee member Justin Gausman, “but we’re not getting much communication-wise from them.”

Positive returns through legislative channels, such as the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, the Undersecretary of Health for the VA keep the fires burning for Save the VA. Dr. Petzel has been seen as a major proponent of the original BHHCS proposal; possibly its instigator. His resignation came after Senator Johnson encouraged the Save the VA committee to allow the VA hierarchy in Washington, D.C. to “save face.”

“We continue to analyze the VA’s data from the original proposal and the information they gave us in May, and we’ve uncovered some really shocking things,” Gausman said. “For example, the VA admitted, on paper, that their population projections they gave to the community showing a decrease in veterans were using out-of-date data and neglected entirely to include all of the veterans from Scottsbluff (Neb.) Now they say they expect the number of veterans they serve to remain stable or actually increase.”

Another aspect of the Save the VA’s continued struggle to retain services is the creation of a veteran’s owned and operated business, called Veterans Enterprises, that would work with the VA’s PTSD and Abuse programs.

Veterans Enterprises, which continues to come into shape, was revealed in June of 2012, as a way to provide employment and job training to veterans enrolled in a reconstructed Hot Springs facility. It has seated a volunteer board of directors; local business leaders who have agreed to assist in the startup. Save the VA members noted that as there is nothing in motion, the volunteer board would remain un-named. A CEO has been discussed for the business model as well.

While Veterans Enterprises has not received support for Hot Springs, after the VA decided not to continue the popular Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program in Hot Springs, “due to the political climate,” the VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management pursued adapting the unique, innovative, program for a different facility. This decision was immediately opposed by the Save the VA.

“It’s important that people know and understand that the fight continues,” Marty said. “We are working and we share information as much as we can with the community. Sometimes we have information that we simply cannot share. Other times, there is simply nothing to share.”

Committee member Bob Nelson said that going forward the next step is to increase the pressure on the congressional representatives to work on the problem, Senator Johnson in particular, because of the clout that Johnson wields as chair of the Veterans Appropriations Committee.

“He (Sen. Johnson) has done alot,” Nelson said. “We’re asking he and the others to do more.”

Johnson responded to an e-mail request by saying, “Over the past two years we’ve seen the Hot Springs community rally to save their VA.  Their passion has inspired me.  Together, we’ve questioned the VA’s original proposal, provided details on a new community-developed proposal, and demonstrated to VA officials the impact their proposal would have on veterans. The decision is now in Sec. Shinseki’s hands.  This has been a long process, and I await his decision.”

Waiting is something at which the Save the VA group has become adept. The waiting, however, has not dulled their resolve in the matter.

“If we are David in this fight,” Nelson said, “then we are going to keep firing our sling at Goliath. We are in this for the long haul.”

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