The Save the VA group finally got its meeting with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who listened to their proposal to keep the Hot Springs VA facility open as a national PTSD treatment center.
After the scheduled 45 minute meeting stretched to an hour and a half, members of the Hot Springs group said they were encouraged. "We were very encouraged by the attention Secretary Shinseki gave to our presentation," said Save the VA spokesman Rich Gross.
The meeting included Gov. Dennis Daugaard and a delegation of senators and representatives from South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. Oglala Sioux tribal president Bryan Brewer recorded a video message expressing opposition to the proposed closure of most VA medical facilities in Hot Springs and relocate them to Rapid City and Fort Meade.
Shinseki has said that he has not made a decision on the Black Hills VA Healthcare System's reorganization plan.
Save the VA had asked for a meeting with Shinseki in Hot Springs. Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune of South Dakota, John Barasso and Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota wrote to Shinseki last year requesting that the VA secretary tour the Hot Springs VA medical center before making a decision. Shinseki declined the invitation and suggested that Save the VA come to Washington and discuss their proposal with an undersecretary.
Fortunately, Sen. Johnson was able to persuade Shinseki to meet the Hot Springs delegation at his Senate office. Johnson's membership on the Senate Appropriations Committee may have influenced Shinseki's cooperation.
It's not out of the realm to question the VA's sincerity in listening to alternatives to the VA reorganization plan. Despite Black Hills VA director Steve DiStasio asking for different proposals, he later said he couldn't negotiate on any changes. To this day, the VA has not provided complete data supporting its reorganization plan.
Despite the VA's sketchy proposal and obvious lack of cooperation in analyzing its own plan, Shinseki's willingness to meet with the Save the VA group and hear its detailed proposal is promising.
We still believe that Shinseki needs to come to Hot Springs and see the facilities for himself prior to making a decision that would have far-reaching impacts on how veterans are treated in a three-state region. But at least now he's listening.