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Governor-elect Kristi Noem said she would like Hot Springs to be "America's veterans town."

One message rose above all others Monday night when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs held its first public hearing on the draft plan to realign the VA Black Health Care System.

As expected, some of the 30 people present at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel made clear their opinion that the VA should not close its historic hospital in Hot Springs in favor of expanding its services in Rapid City.

But the major argument brought forward as the VA took public comment Monday on the draft Environmental Impact Statement was this: That the VA has used old, inaccurate or unsubstantiated data to choose its preferred option that would dramatically alter the VA campus, offerings and employment in Hot Springs.

The most strident opponents of closing the historic Hot Springs hospital pointed out a number of inconsistencies or assumptions that had been misused by the VA in its extensive draft report.

Patrick Russell of Hot Springs, a union official and leader within the Save the VA group, pointed out that the VA assumes — and uses the figure to makes its argument — that 633 full-time employees would be needed to do what is being done now by only 370 workers. He also said he did not agree with some VA conclusions that the existing facility did not have enough space for health-care or counseling programs.

Questions about the accuracy of the VA's information were also raised by Qusi Al-Haj, a West River liaison for U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. Al-Haj put in the record his question of "to what extent has data been verified?" Al-Haj said Thune wants to be sure the VA is using "good, solid numbers" before making its final decision.

Al-Haj was told that the sources for all the data are included within the EIS draft report index.

The first of several public hearings was held because the VA says the realignment is needed to provide the highest quality and accessibility of care for veterans in the system's service area.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement — which came in the form of a 780-page report — outlined the VA's plan to reconfigure its Black Hills Health Care System. After reviewing six options, which ranged from keeping open and renovating the historic hospital campus to making no changes at all, the agency stayed its long-held course by recommending the so-called Alternative A.

That plan essentially calls for closing the Hot Springs campus that includes the Battle Mountain Sanitarium, spending about $150 million on a new community-based outpatient clinic in Hot Springs while also building a multi-specialty outpatient clinic and 100-bed residential rehabilitation treatment center in Rapid City.

The Save the VA proposal, which the VA says would cost $247 million over 30 years, would renovate the Hot Springs campus and increase services provided there and keep existing services in Rapid City.

Ken Orrock of the American Legion said his group is concerned about the timing of the realignment, and urged the VA to ensure that if a facility is closed, that there is a new facility ready to provide care to veterans so health care does not lapse.

The lone backer of the VA's preferred option, World War II veteran Stan Leiberman, of Rapid City, noted that he's had great health care throughout the Black Hills VA system, including in Hot Springs. But he supports a stronger VA presence in Pennington County, which he said has 12,000 veterans and will see more veterans arrive as wars intensify. "I hope I live to see a VA hospital be built in Rapid City," said Leiberman, who is 98.

Amy Cole of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, expressed her group's feeling that the VA does not have a good track record of maintaining its historic buildings that are re-purposed or mothballed.

VA officials noted Monday that public comment in person or in writing is a key part of the EIS process, and that the agency's preferred alternative could change based on the input.

Russell urged the public to get involved in the process to make sure a good decision is made. "You're going to lose a resource that our rural veterans need for their health care," he said.

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