When the federal Veteran's Administration released its proposed 2014 budget this month, one particular line item caught the eye of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson and gave him pause.
There, amid many millions in spending, was a proposal to spend nearly $10 million to lease and "build out" 108,000 square feet of space for a Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program facility and a Multi-Specialty Outpatient Clinic — both in Rapid City.
The language seemed to cement a VA plan to close most of its existing Black Hills Health Care System facilities in Hot Springs and move them to Rapid City. But that was a shock to Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and many people in Hot Springs who are fighting feverishly to save the VA hospital that is a major economic engine in the city.
The spending proposal seemed to contradict past statements by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has assured the South Dakota congressional delegation and members of the Save the VA Campaign in Hot Springs that no final decision had been made on the relocation proposal. In fact, another meeting to discuss alternatives to closing the Hot Springs hospital was already set for next month in Washington, D.C.
But it turns out that, at first blush anyway, the proposed relocation money might have been just an embarrassing gaff on the part of the VA.
During questioning at the Department of Veterans Affairs Appropriations hearings last week, Sen. Johnson pointedly asked Shinseki, “How can we believe that you are considering other alternatives, when this budget request would set the VA’s plans in motion?”
Shinseki immediately backpedaled from the budget proposal.
“Sen. Johnson,” Shinseki responded, “Let me apologize for the language included in the budget proposal regarding Black Hills. It was not appropriate and is an oversight on our part. I assure you that I have not made a decision at this time.”
Shinseki acknowledged that he and Johnson had had discussions on this matter, and he said the dialogue is ongoing. Johnson requested that Shinseki notify the Authorization Committee about the mistaken budget item, and Shinseki agreed to do so.
But the proposed line item carried other surprises. For example, the VA budget included language about leasing space in Rapid City, when from the start the original proposal was to close the Hot Springs Campus and build a new treatment facility in Rapid City.
The budget proposal still called for vacating the Hot Springs Campus, although no mention was made in the request as to the cost of closing the facility.
Hearing the exchange between Johnson and Shinseki — and statements the budget proposal was in error — buoyed the spirits of the Save the VA group as it prepares to make its second trip to Washington on May 6 to meet with Patricia Vandenberg, the Assistant Deputy for Policy and Planning for the VA.
Pat Russell, a member of the Save the VA Committee that will be heading to Washington next month, said he watched a tape of the exchange between Johnson and Shinseki several times to be sure what it meant. “I had to watch it a few times to catch all the nuances to what Sen. Johnson was saying,” he said.
While Shinseki's comments appear to have put a stop to any further action on the lease proposal, Russell said he would have been more relieved if Shinseki would have agreed to completely eliminate the request rather than just tell the Authroization Committee it was a mistake.
Still, he sees the exchange between Johnson and Shinseki as a positive. “Sen. Johnson called him on the carpet for the language, and we appreciate him doing that,” Russell said.
He added that the May 6 meeting is set up at the VA headquarters and the entire day is set aside. “That will make it difficult to have elected officials there for that long,” Russell said, “but hopefully they can be there for some time and have a staff member remain in their place.”