HOT SPRINGS – The Save the VA group’s meeting with Veteran’s Administration staff on May 6 accomplished several things, according to the people who attended from Hot Springs. The most important of which may not have included disputed numbers, mistaken perceptions or anything involving dollars and cents.
“They know that we are prepared and that we aren’t going away,” Don Ackerman said. “We know what they know – in some instances we know more about their numbers than they do and now they have an understanding of that fact.”
Pat Russell, another of the committee who attended the Washington, D.C. meeting with Patricia Vandenberg, an Assistant Deputy under-secretary for Health for Policy and Planning and other VA staff, said “We weren’t going to change their minds at that meeting. But every time they discussed costs for renovation, construction or mothballing, we were prepared and refuted their claims – often times using their own reports.”
In preparation for the May 6 meeting, the Save the VA group was requested to put its concerns in a series of questions for the staff at the VA to attempt to answer.
Among the questions asked by the Hot Springs group was the number of potential veterans in the Hot Springs catchment area, including the Native American reservations, western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming; the number of enrolled veterans in the Black Hills catchment area; the number of veterans in the Black Hills Health Care Systems market area and the market penetration and the number of enrolled Native American veterans.
The answer to the number of potential veterans is where the 7,000 veterans not previously reported in Scottsbluff, Neb., came into being, according to Russell. Overall, the number of living veterans, according to the VA, is expected to increase over the next 20 years and the number of enrolled veterans in the Black Hills is projected to remain stable.
Costs to build a new 100- bed Domiciliary in Hot Springs were estimated at more than $30 million, including the $1.5 million cost for 10 acres of land that surprised the Save the VA group.
“I told them that I own 200 acres of land and am unaware of any land in the area that would sell for $150,000 per acre,” Russell said. The group was told that the estimate is intentionally increased to insure that there would be no cost overruns.
Conversely, an estimate to renovate the existing Domiciliary and other buildings was put at $59 million. This amount includes nearly $3 million for remodeling of the Director’s office and almost $2 million for Building 17 on the Hot Springs Campus.
“Building 17 is a maintenance shed,” said committee member Bob Nelson, “a garage actually. Why the director’s office and a garage would be included in a plan to remodel for veterans care escapes us.”
Other renovation costs not generally in line with improved healthcare for veterans noted by the committee members is $414,000 for a greenhouse.
“Don’t forget the recommendation to purchase land and build a new fire station,” Ackerman added.
VA estimates to close or ‘mothball’ the Hot Springs campus also changed since a previous meeting with VA staff in January. At that time, referencing a letter from Dept. of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the Save the VA group estimated the total 30-year cost to close and maintain the facility at more than $100 million.
“At that time, using their number of $5.33 per square foot, the cost came in at $107 million,” Nelson said. “They told us on May 6 that there was a mistake in the cost-per-square-foot mentioned earlier and that the actual cost would be more in the $1.62 per-square-foot range.”
Amanda Campbell, another committee member who attended the meeting, continued to be surprised by the lackadaisical approach that the VA has toward the possibility of closing the Hot Springs Campus. All of the building associated with Hot Springs site are on the National Historic Register, are National Historic Landmarks and have been deemed National Treasures. The first two designations are governmental decrees; the latter is from the National Trust for Historic Places.
“They are waiting Sec. Shinseki’s decision,” Campbell said, “then think that they will do the work needed for NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) afterward. This is just unacceptable, in my opinion.”
Campbell also said that she is confused over the way that VA staff attempts to make the entire issue over the future of the Hot Springs VA simply about numbers.
“There is absolutely no human element in their process,” Campbell said. “It’s all numbers with them; evidently that’s how they need to figure things out. Well, it was a bad idea 15 or 20 years ago and it’s not any better now. These are veterans and deserved to be thought of as humans and not just numbers on a chart or a dot on a map.”
At the end of the day-long meeting, the Save the VA group had made its point to Vandenberg, who said she would be reporting back to Sec.Shinseki, as well as staffers from each of the South Dakota Congressional offices.
Ackerman said he believes that an impression was made on the congressional staffers at the meeting.
“We also spoke with Senator (Tim) Johnson and Representative Kristi Noem,” Russell said, “and got good responses from them and from the staff member of Senator John Thune’s office.