Hot Springs VA Facility Closure Still a Question
HOT SPRINGS—The sandstone buildings overlooking this small southern Black Hills town and once referred to as Battle Mountain Sanitarium have served the needs of this country’s veterans since they were built in the 1880s.
Created to provide care for those who served the Union after the Civil War, a century later the location would become known as one of the nation’s leading Veterans Administration medical facilities, consistently ranking at or near the top of the list among former military personnel in national patient satisfaction surveys.
But an effort to close down the Hot Springs VA medical campus – publicly announced in 2011 after services had already been reduced over several years – has threatened to bring that long history of veterans’ health support if not to and end, then to a radical decline.
And despite public meetings, Congressional concern and vocal opposition from community members, veterans and their families from South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming, the VA Black Hills Health Care System’s 5-year push to change the Hot Springs campus’ role to one of an outpatient clinic only…while relocating all other services to an as-yet-to-be-built medical complex in Rapid City was approved last year and endorsed by outgoing Veterans Administration Secretary Robert McDonald.
In preparation for the facility’s dismantling, the Veterans Health Administration’s Members Services Department began training contact representatives last month for its 6th national call center – to be located at the Hot Springs
VA campus. VHA Member
Services currently has 5 national call centers in
Georgia, New York, Kansas and Texas.
Contact representatives assist veterans across the country with refilling and renewing prescriptions.
The representatives also specialize in helping veterans to determine eligibility for
VA health care and enrolling them in the system.
Twenty-two employees have already been hired for the center. Hiring will cap at 120 by the end of April while the center will begin operations later this month. Acting Director of VA Member Services Matthew Eitutis noted that 68 percent of the 600 candidates who’ve applied for the positions come from within 30 miles of Hot Springs. He added that the full staff of 120 is expected to put $4 million into the Hot Springs community annually and noted that the Hot Springs VA campus will not only accommodate the call center’s current needs but will provide enough space for growth in the future as the facility is dismantled from its patient services role.
And though that may seem like the end of the story for this historic veterans care facility…it’s not.
Newly confirmed VA Secretary David Shulkin during his Congressional confirmation hearings advised S.D. Senator Mike Rounds that he’d had a chance to get on the phone with the Veterans Integrated Service Networks Director and the facilities director “out in that area” (South Dakota).
“I had them go through their rationale about how they got to their decision making,” Shulkin commented. “I had some additional questions, much like you, and I appreciate you bringing those to my attention. We are going to relook at this. There were actually a couple options on the table. I have begun the process of looking at that and I will get back to you and discuss with you what some of those options are. I want to get your thoughts on how we can serve veterans in that area best.”
Moreover, there is actually room for the call center at the Hot Springs VA facility as it now stands – even if the campus were to retain its historic role as a health services provider for area veterans.
“There are other buildings available,” observed Bob Nelson, a Hot Springs resident who’s been part of the Save the VA committee since it began at the start of the community’s battle to keep the medical facility in operation.
“Rather than locate the call center in The Domiciliary… the large circular building,” explained Nelson, “they could use the old residents’ quarters. We would prefer they put it there than at a location where there are currently patients.”
And though Save the VA supports the call center, Nelson added that the 120 jobs and the local income they’ll generate won’t match the loss of the 230 jobs caused by the facility’s dismantling.
“It will certainly help the local community,” Nelson commented. “But it certainly won’t help it to the degree it would if the VA stayed here and those jobs were physicians and medical staff at a much higher wage.”
The bottom line, according to Pine Ridge Veterans Shelter director Darrell Hernandez is the impact the move to Rapid City will have on those the Veterans Administration is supposed to serve.
“It puts a burden on veterans,” Hernandez explained. “Not just the Native American vets down here on Pine Ridge, but also in parts of Nebraska where they rely on the VA facility in Hot Springs.”
Hernandez added that like many others in positions where they assist veterans with medical needs he’s found that the Veterans Choice program – created to offer local health care alternatives for veterans who can’t access nearby VA medical facilities – is not a workable option.
“Veterans complain that they can’t get the courtesy and knowledge in non-VA facilities that they’ve come to expect at Hot Springs,” said Hernandez.
Both Nelson and Hernandez expressed hope that Secretary Shulkin will vote to keep the Hot Springs VA medical facility functioning as it has been for all these years. One circumstance in their favor may be the new administration’s freeze on hiring federal workers. Although Matthew Eitutis stated that the VHA Member Services call center’s contact representatives are exempt from the order, the VA Black Hills Health Care System’s response to whether its plans for hiring employees for its new facility in Rapid City will proceed as planned was met with a less definite response.
“Current appropriations law restricts funds to implement the reconfiguration until requirements of that legislation are met,” wrote spokesperson Teresa Forbes. “VA leaders are working with Congress to address the requirements in the legislation. Once the restrictions of that law are lifted the design phase of the reconfiguration will begin. This means Veterans should not expect immediate changes.”
It also means that until – and unless - that process is accomplished, there won’t be a move.