Veterans Affairs services in Fort Meade, Hot Springs, & Wagner could be closed down

RAPID CITY, S.D.(Rapid City Journal)-The majority of Veterans Affairs services in Fort Meade and Hot Springs could one day be transferred to a new facility in Rapid City.

Robert McDivitt, Vision 23 Network Director, and Lisa Curnes, Medical Center Director at VA Black Hills, made the announcement to Fort Meade and Hot Springs employees in a meeting Friday afternoon.

“The secretary asked that we brief you on the market assessment process, AIR Commission process and preliminary recommendations from that process prior to the recommendations going out for public comment,” McDivitt said. “That’s fairly unusual in the VA.”

McDivitt said the Asset and Infrastructure Review report will be released to the public March 14, along with “thousands” of pages of data.

He said the preliminary recommendations that would be presented to President Joe Biden in 2023 after a year-long public comment period will be to relocate the outpatient mental health services to a new Rapid City facility and transition both Fort Meade and Hot Springs into community-based outpatient clinics.

South Dakota delegation reacted to this decision.

U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) issued the following statements after the Biden administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) informed the VA medical facilities in Hot Springs, Wagner, and Fort Meade that proposed recommendations as part of a multi-year nationwide review of VA health care infrastructure suggest they would be closing.

“For nearly a decade, I’ve fought tooth and nail to defend the Hot Springs VA and the surrounding communities,” said Thune. “I’ve stood side by side with veterans, health care professionals, and community leaders as we made our case to previous administrations about the significant benefits these facilities provide to America’s veterans throughout the multi-state area they serve. That’s why I’m extremely disappointed by the Biden administration’s proposal to close these facilities. I’m frustrated, and I’m angry, and I know these communities are too. Let me put this as plainly as I can: The VA is wrong, period. This is a massive mistake, and I will do everything within my power to show the administration, by working with the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, why it would be in everyone’s best interest, especially South Dakota’s veterans’, to immediately change course.”

“The concerns I warned against in 2018 when I voted against the VA MISSION Act have come to fruition,” said Rounds. “Veterans were told they could receive care in the community, and that’s proven not to be the case. The VA MISSION Act also included provisions to include this BRAC-style process, which we learned today will negatively impact much of rural SD. The VA MISSION Act was bad public policy then and it’s gotten no better with age. While the provisions of this BRAC will not be released publicly until March 14th – the threat has become clear to our local veterans. As a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I’ll fight like hell to make sure veterans in South Dakota receive the care they’ve earned. I call upon all veterans organizations to help us defend these services in rural South Dakota.”

“Nearly two years ago to the day, former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie came to the Hot Springs VA and announced that the VA would remain open and there would be no reduction in services for veterans,” said Johnson. “In South Dakota, promises mean something. This is a betrayal to the Hot Springs community and its veterans. If the commission is going to move forward with reducing services, they should face the people of Hot Springs, Wagner, Fort Meade, and Sioux Falls and explain why they believe these services should be scaled back. We’ve worked together to fight harmful VA decisions in the past, and we are ready do so again.”

Governor Kristi Noem promised to defend South Dakota veterans against President Biden and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from their plan to close and downsize several VA facilities in South Dakota. Governor Noem issued the following statement:

“The Biden Administration has betrayed the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our nation and our freedoms. First, Democrats defunded the police. Now, they are defunding our veterans by recommending closures and downsizing of VA facilities across the country.

“These are their plans: they will turn the full-service VA hospitals in Fort Meade and Hot Springs into clinics; the Sioux Falls VA hospital will lose its emergency services; and the clinic in Wagner will completely close. Veterans in these areas will no longer have options and may have to drive hundreds of miles to obtain healthcare services. Tribal veterans, in particular, could lose their healthcare services entirely.

“When I voted to modernize VA healthcare in 2018, we had the goal of expanding healthcare options for our veterans. We wanted them to be able to choose the care that was best for them. The Biden Administration’s action will only limit those options and shortchange our veterans. It was not the intent of our vote, so I am promising to push back.

“South Dakota is the best state in America to live and work as a veteran, and we will not stand for this betrayal. We will defend our South Dakota facilities and stand up for the men and women who stood up for us.”

The announcement was made on conference calls with VA employees at the affected facilities this afternoon. You can listen to the call with VA employees at Hot Springs and Fort Meade here. Prior to the conference calls, the VA sent employees a message that can be read here.