Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), and Representative Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) today sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric Shinseki calling for him to return Hot Springs' Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS) to full operation following the lack of leadership and breach of good faith by the VA over the past two years. The delegation's letter outlines their concerns with the VA's proposal which was introduced without providing any cost-benefit analysis to support the changes it was seeking to make. The letter also questions the VA's decision to move the Compensated Work Therapy program that was approved for BHHCS but was instead relocated to Walla Walla, Washington.
The delegation writes: "We are growing impatient with the lack of attention the VA has given to this matter. After two years of discussion and the tireless dedication of the Save the VA Committee and other stakeholders, the VA should certainly have made more progress by this point. However, given the remaining discrepancies concerning the data used by the VA to formulate its proposal and the lack of consideration afforded to alternatives, we again request that the VA make efforts to return the Hot Springs campus to its former levels of operations and staff before conducting a five-year review to gather new data."
The text of the letter is below:
December 13, 2013
The Honorable Eric Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
We write to again request a response to our outstanding concerns with the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) proposal to reconfigure the Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS). We were grateful for the opportunity to meet with you on January 28, 2013, and for representatives from our offices to meet with your staff and members of the Save the VA Committee (SVA) on May 6, 2013. However, we are extremely disappointed that several outstanding discrepancies in the proposal have gone unanswered since it was introduced two years ago. We highlighted these concerns in a letter dated May 17, 2013, and we have yet to receive a response. Even for bureaucratic standards, this delay is unacceptable and reaffirms our belief that the VA introduced this proposal with a blind determination to see it through, regardless of cost or how it might impact our veterans.
After months of refusing to acknowledge rumors that a plan to restructure the BHHCS was in development, the VA released its proposal two years ago on December 12, 2011. When a plan was finally released, however, it was not accompanied by a cost-benefit analysis, leaving many to question how the VA arrived at its decision to reconfigure the BHHCS. It was not until June 12, 2012, a full seven months later, that the VA released its cost-benefit analysis to the community of stakeholders. By that time, the stakeholders had developed an innovative counter-proposal, per the VA's invitation, to create VA partnerships within the community of Hot Springs, SD.
As you may recall, the SVA proposed the creation of a national post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment center and an integrated Compensated Work Therapy program (CWT) that would operate in conjunction with the local, privately-funded Veterans Enterprises. At this time, the VA assured that public feedback would be seriously considered and incorporated into any final proposal as appropriate. However, during a meeting on September 10, 2012, the BHHCS leadership said that they were unable to negotiate on the VA's original proposal. Over a year later, the trust between the BHHCS, veterans, the SVA, and other community stakeholders remains fragile. We believe that the SVA put forth innovative ideas that were crafted with the best interests of veterans in mind and deserve proper consideration by the VA.
In the meantime, BHHCS leadership has pursued initiatives that we feel have made the Hot Springs VA campus less viable for veteran care. Recently, SVA representatives have shared with us reports of the VA turning away veterans seeking admission to the Residential Rehabilitation and Treatment Program due to lack of available patient space while it converts needed treatment space into administrative offices. The Hot Springs campus is highly regarded for its PTSD care, boasting an impressive 87 percent non-recidivism rate. We attribute these top marks not only to the peaceful environment that is unique to the Hot Springs campus, but also to the supportive community that lives up to its reputation as "The Veterans Town."
We also seek explanation for why a CWT program that was originally approved for Hot Springs by the VA Office of Construction and Facilities Management was instead relocated to Walla Walla, Washington. We find this removal of support to be consistent with the VA's desire to shutter the Hot Springs campus, an initiative that can be linked to retiring VA Undersecretary for Health, Veterans Health Administration, Dr. Robert Petzel. Dr. Petzel, who once served as director of Veterans Integrated Service Network 23, will leave behind a history of questionable management decisions and lapses in oversight. We hope that the VA will mitigate this negative influence by withdrawing its proposal.
We are growing impatient with the lack of attention the VA has given to this matter. After two years of discussion and the tireless dedication of the SVA and other stakeholders, the VA should certainly have made more progress by this point. However, given the remaining discrepancies concerning the data used by the VA to formulate its proposal and the lack of consideration afforded to alternatives, we again request that the VA make efforts to return the Hot Springs campus to its former levels of operations and staff before conducting a five-year review to gather new data.
We appreciate your timely attention to this matter and look forward to continuing the discussion on how we can best provide for our veterans.
Senator John Thune
Senator Tim Johnson
Representative Kristi Noem