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Strongly-worded letter sent to VA Secretary

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressional representatives from South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary Eric Shinseki, requesting that the VA seriously consider incorporating the Hot Springs Save the VA proposal into any final decision in the reconfiguration of the VA Black Hills Health Care System.

The letter, dated May 17, is what the members of the Save the VA committee had hoped for following the group’s May 6 meeting in Washington, D.C. with staff members from the VA.

The letter in its entirety is included with this story. It includes the signatures of S.D. Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune, S.D. Representative Kristi Noem, as well as Wyoming Senators Mike Enzi and John Barraso, Wyoming Representative Cynthia Lummis and Nebraska Representative Adrian Smith.

In December of 2011, the BHHCS proposed to construct a new Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Hot Springs, while at the same time closing the medical center there. Also included in the proposal was the construction of a 100-bed PTSD treatment center in Rapid City, and closing the remaining buildings on the Hot Springs Campus, including the Domiciliary, where PTSD and substance abuse patients receive treatment.

“I don’t think I could have asked for more than we received (in this letter),” said Don Ackerman, a Save the VA committee member. “The public needs to realize how many lies the VA local leadership has printed in the last year.”

“I think that it is really good; it’s exactly what we needed from the congressionals,” said committee member Amanda Campbell. “This letter speaks volumes; it’s wonderful.”

The congressionals’ letter also called into question the continued discrepancy surrounding the number of veterans served in Hot Springs, particularly those residing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

According to the letter, tribal veterans have stated that they would be less likely to travel the additional distance to Rapid City. During the May 6 meeting, the VA acknowledged an additional 7,000 veterans in western Nebraska, which would receive treatment in Hot Springs; veterans that were not counted previously.

“I believe that we made a substantial impression on the congressional staff members in attendance at the May 6 meeting,” said Dr. Rich Gross, another Save the VA committee member. “Their reference to the specialized treatment facility in Texas I think really magnifies the belief that they – the VA - needs to think ‘out of the box’ when it comes to veterans and treating their health care needs.”

Gross said at the May 6 meeting, a specialized program at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio was highlighted as an example of a program that has proven successful for the treatment of amputees.

The Save the VA proposal, released last June, calls for a national PTSD treatment center for veterans in Hot Springs, and included the creation of a veteran-owned, veteran-managed business, an idea not overlooked by the representatives.

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“We request that the VA seriously consider the Save the VA’s proposal to build an integrated veterans support community that is centered on a national PTSD and substance abuse program, as well as a Compensated Work Therapy program in Hot Springs,” the letter states.

Additionally, the letter also reflects the representatives’ belief that “data highlights a systematic dismantling of the Hot Springs campus,” and adds that in the light of discrepancies in data that the VA used to formulate its proposal, “we would like to request that the VA make efforts to return the Hot Springs campus to its former levels of operations and staff before conducting a five-year review to gather new data.”

“This letter is a solid wrap-up to our May 6 meeting,” Campbell said. “There was so much data discussed and this is an outstanding summary. I think this very similar to what we would have written ourselves. Don’t know that we could have asked for a stronger letter of support.”

“Our job now is to make it uncomfortable for the VA to not listen to the strong suggestion that was delivered by the Congressionals,” Ackerman said.

“We have been fighting this fight for a year and a half – it’s time to move forward on this,” Gross added. “I hope that a response from Sec. Shinseki and the VA comes sooner rather than later.”

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