The American Legion issued a report today, calling upon the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to carefully consider its plan to close the VA Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS) in Hot Springs, S.D., and the impact that it might have on the region's veterans served by the facility.
In December 2011, VA released an official proposal to reconfigure medical services provided by BHHCS, which called for the closing of the VA medical center in Hot Springs, opening a new community-based outpatient clinic (CBOC), transferring some services to Rapid City and Fort Meade, and using fee-based services at a hospital in Fall River.
After hearing VA's reconfiguration plan and the consternation it had created for veterans at BHHSC, the Legion conducted an official System Worth Saving (SWS) site visit at the facility. The Legion's SWS team met with BHHCS staff members, who mentioned that the area's veterans population was declining — only 39 percent of enrolled veterans resided within 60 miles of the medical center. BHHCS staff also stated that the Hot Springs domiciliary is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act; the medical center served a daily average of only five inpatients; specialty care and surgical procedures were limited; and the hospital's infrastructure was getting more expensive to maintain.
The SWS team also conducted a town hall meeting with more than 200 attendees. Many veterans at the meeting voiced their opposition to the medical center's closure, as well as concerns about the privatization of local health care. "Many of the veterans felt like their opinions didn't matter," said SWS team member Warren Goldstein, who attended the meeting. "They thought VA was moving too quickly with its decision, and that the proposal had not been properly communicated to them."
"That's the reason we conduct these site visits," said Jacob Gadd, deputy director of health for the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation (VA&R) Division. "We want to hear firsthand from veterans what their concerns are, and to make sure that VA continues to provide the high-quality medical care that veterans have earned through their service."
Gadd shared the Legion's report on the Hot Springs proposal with Dr. Robert Petzel, VA's under secretary for health. During their meeting, "Petzel assured The American Legion that this proposal has yet to be finalized, and that the Legion's input will help VA in developing its plan," Gadd said.
In its report, The American Legion urged VA to maintain the same levels of care and service for veterans in the Hot Springs area. Other recommendations made to VA included:
• To not relocate and/or close medical services until a new facility is in place.
• To provide equivalent understanding of veteran's health-care needs, if contracted to non-VA medical facilities.
• To open a super-CBOC that can provide both primary and specialty-care services if the medical center in Hot Springs is closed .
• To keep the domiciliary on the Hot Springs campus in effort to meet the long-term/extended care needs of local veterans.
• To search for opportunities that make use of the State Veterans Home in Hot Springs.
• To ensure that all future plans reflect necessary services that veterans in Hot Springs and surrounding areas need.
"Until we can review a finalized contract with the local hospital in Hot Springs, we really can't ensure that VA's reconfiguration plan for inpatient services will provide veterans with the same quality of care they've been getting from the VA facility at this time," Gadd said.
Verna Jones, director of the Legion's VA&R Division, said, "We will continue to work with the Veterans Health Administration as this proposal moves forward, both to share our concerns and to offer recommendations that meet the needs of veterans across the country."