By John D. Taylor
HOT SPRINGS – About 125 people gathered in the Mueller Center’s auditorium Monday evening, Nov. 23, to learn how they could help continue the fight to keep Hot Springs’ VA center as a continuing part of The Veterans Town.
Hot Springs’ Save the VA committee sponsored the meeting, following the release of the long-awaited draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in October by the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Black Hills Health Care System (VA BHHCS).
The draft EIS offered six options for what to do with Hot Springs’ 108-year old Battle Mountain Sanitarium National Historic Landmark VA Medical Center and Domiciliary, including the VA’s preferred option of shutting down the facility and moving its services to a leased Rapid City care center.
For the last four years, the VA BHHCS has been working towards this goal, using two main arguments – that, despite never failing any facility inspections, the Hot Spring buildings are too old to properly serve the veterans within the three-state region (South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming); and that the facility is too far away from the veterans it serves – to offer veterans the quality, modern healthcare they deserve.
Monday night Save the VA leaders told the community how they could dispute these claims and keep the VA in Hot Springs. Pat Russell, co-chairman for Hot Springs’ Save the VA committee, led the meeting. He was joined by Amanda Campbell, a former Hot Springs resident who deals with federal documents, including EIS statements, in her U.S. Forest Service job. (Campbell flew in from Michigan to participate in the meeting.) “The Angry Veteran,” Don Ackerman also rallied the troops against the VA. And Bob Nelson helped, too.
They were joined by representatives from South Dakota’s Congressional delegation—U.S. Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds, and Rep. Kristi Noem -- and state legislators who spoke for continuing the fight against the VA’s plans.
All who spoke described the process of the draft EIS becoming a final EIS, then the VA moving forward with some form of final determination on what it would do with the Hot Springs facility as being another skirmish in the protracted conflict with the VA’s overriding plan to pull the Hot Springs VA facility.
The misconception that is being spread by “big media,” Russell said, is that the decision on the VA is already made. That’s not so, he said. There has been no decision made.
He emphasized that the final decision on this would be made by VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald – after the draft EIS and the comments generated from it were considered; after a final EIS was created, and following a final determination by the VA.
Russell also challenged some of the VA’s numbers: When the VA claimed that 40 percent of the veterans who use Hot Springs VA services live in Pennington County, and that Rapid City makes more sense for the location of the VA because of this.
Russell said the figures were inaccurate and reflected only those who use the Ft. Meade VA facility, not the actual count of 5 percent of veterans who live in Pennington County who use the post traumatic stress disorder facilities in Hot Springs.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Save the VA acquired an accounting of VA-using veterans by zip code, and the VA is still using false information to justify their desire to eliminate Hot Springs facility, according to Ackerman.
Russell also thanked everyone for coming, and reminding them that the first public comment meetings would be held in Rapid City on Monday, Nov. 30, then in Hot Springs on Dec. 1.
Campbell explained how to submit meaningful comments during the series of public hearings that will be held through Jan. 5 – although the Congressional delegation, the Save the VA committee, and others have asked for a 30-day extension of the comment period, due to the holidays.
Anyone who is impacted by the VA should comment, Campbell told the crowd. But the most meaningful comments, the comments that will carry the most impact and could potentially sway opinions, will be those that focus on disputing the VA’s purpose and need for moving the Hot Springs VA facility to Rapid City, she said.
If those wishing to make comments will focus on these two items, and explain “like you’re talking to a 4-year-old” how the impact of moving the VA will negatively impact the quality and safety of the healthcare veterans receive, their comment will carry some weight, she said.
The VA, Campbell said, is charged with delivering high quality, safe, accessible care to veterans. If a commenter can show how the move will not result in this, the comment will carry more weight. She suggested commenters focus on how the issues with Hot Springs VA facility are more management issues, not facility issues; also how losing a VA would result in inadequate healthcare for veterans.
She also said commenters should focus on the bogus numbers the VA is using to justify their move. For example, the VA claims it wants to create a $2.45 million outpatient facility here in Hot Springs, but pull the remainder of the care veterans receive to a new $14.7 million per year leased Rapid City facility.
This would cost the VA more than $148 million over the next 30 years, the VA claims.
However, their numbers don’t jive: A 30-year lease at $14.7 million per year alone would cost $441 million, not $148 million. There are other bogus claims by the VA throughout the EIS, she said, statements that make her mad.
Campbell said commenters may submit as many comments as they want to, at any of the public meetings for submitting comments held by the VA throughout the three-state region.
Save the VA is offering a pamphlet to would-be commenters to help them write or prepare comments to the EIS. Check the website http://www.theveteranstown.com/ or contact a Save the VA member.
Ackerman looked at what has been accomplished and what’s left to be done to keep the VA in Hot Springs, and rallied the troops fighting to keep it here.
He noted how taxpayers paid $800,000 nearly $1,000 per page for the 780-page draft EIS, which he described as a “bucket full of crap.”
But this was an advantage, he said, because a good, factual report would be much harder to fight.
He reminded those gathered how four years ago, the VA was mandating a transition to a new Rapid City facility without having to justify this to the public or anyone else. People stopped this process, he said, by garnering the support of Congress for keeping the VA in Hot Springs. This also put Hot Spring on the map, he said, because in Washington, D.C. in the past, people said, “Hot Springs? Arkansas?”
“Now they’re saying Hot Springs… that’s in South Dakota,” he told the crowd.
He also pointed out how the VA’s fight with Hot Springs has made the VA leadership become accountable to veterans and the public. “No more King Stephen,” Ackerman said, referencing former VA BHHCS Director Stephen DiStasio, “and Dr. Petzel doesn’t have his job any more. We’re part of this.” Dr. Robert Petzel was a VA Under Secretary, but resigned in 2014.
What’s left to be done in this fight, Ackerman said, is this:
- Comment on the draft EIS, he urged the crowd.
- Find ways to make your wants known: If your comments don’t fit in with the EIS comments, then share them with the Congressional delegation or others.
Ackerman said veterans haven’t yet begun to war with the VA.
“It’s not war yet,” he added. “but veterans will be ready to fight when they need to fight. This will influence the future of veterans’ healthcare across the country. The battle is on. This is The Veterans Town. We’re the mouse that roared, we changed the world a little bit. Help us get this job done.”
Also speaking were representatives from Sen. Thune, Sen. Rounds and Rep. Noem’s offices.
Qusi Al-Haj, from Sen. Thune’s office said there was no cost-benefit analysis done for the VA pulling out of Hot Springs, hence the agency’s numbers are flawed. Initially, Al-Haj said, the VA didn’t expect “pushback” from three-state (South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska) Congressional delegation, but they got it.
“This fight is not over yet,” he emphasized. “We can’t fight a war without your help. The VA has made no choice. The final decision will be up to the VA secretary, Robert McDonald.”
A question and answer period brought forth a number of stories about how moving the VA facility to Rapid City would cause problems for people – including financial loss and severe burdens on those served by the Hot Springs facility and their caretakers. Those who spoke said the VA must stop abandoning people, and begin serving them again.