President Biden is facing fierce bipartisan opposition to his administration’s just-unveiled plan to close three Veterans Affairs hospitals and 174 other facilities around the country, an effort to streamline, relocate and modernize health care services for 9 million veterans.
Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico is among the lawmakers criticizing the plan, saying he is “deeply disappointed” with the recommendation to close clinics.
“Our nation’s veterans deserve the highest level of care,” Mr. Lujan said. “Closing these facilities will adversely affect the care they receive and I will fight against any recommendation that closes facilities or requires our veterans to travel longer and further for care.”
Four VA community-based clinics in New Mexico could close under the proposal, and one would be relocated.
In the $2 trillion blueprint released this week by the Department of Veterans Affairs, three medical centers would close in Northampton, Massachusetts.; Brooklyn, New York and Chillicothe, Ohio and dozens of other facilities would be shuttered.
The administration has been bracing for political blowback to the plan, expected to generate the same kind of fierce local opposition that rounds of military base-closing have brought for the Pentagon. Officials say the VA reorganization is needed to reflect the changing needs of modern health care and to close aging offices and centers that are no longer near where large numbers of veterans live.
VA officials also are calling for the construction of dozens of new health care and community living facilities, saying the reorganization will put nearly 200,000 more veterans within a 30-minute drive of mental health care.
“The bottom line is that all the recommended changes — if approved — will add up to the one thing that matters most: more care, and better care, for veterans,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough. “All of that care will be delivered in modern, state-of-the-art facilities that veterans deserve and will result in more veterans’ lives saved, and improved, by the work VA does — which is precisely what these recommendations strive to accomplish.”
According to the preliminary plan, 35 VA Medical Centers in 21 different states would be closed or completely rebuilt, while 14 new VA hospitals and 140 new multi-specialty outpatient clinics would be added to the system. Seven of the 17 sites slated for closure are in the Northeast, officials said, reflecting the fact that more of the U.S. veteran population has moved out of the region in recent decades to resettled in the Midwest and Southwest.
But the pushback to the plan, particularly from lawmakers whose states and districts stand to lose out in the overhaul, has been swift.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, New York Republican, joined Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella and two local veterans’ groups on Monday at the Staten Island Community VA Clinic to speak out against the proposal.
“Under no circumstance will we allow the Biden administration to close our VA hospitals,” Ms. Malliotakis said. “Our VA Medical Centers provide specialized treatments and services that our veterans rely on, need, and quite frankly, deserve. I hope my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will be steadfast and strong against this proposal. If President Biden is serious about expanding health care access to our nation’s veterans, I fully expect this proposal to be dead on arrival if it gets to his desk.”
Lee Covino, a veteran and Staten Island resident, called the plan “outrageous.”
“We have to stay sharp, and when those public hearings come up, we need everyone to testify,” he said.
Gene DiGiacomo, Staten Island president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said opponents of the plan “have to get all of the veterans out.”
“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said.
In New Hampshire, Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas called the proposal to close VA outpatient clinics in Conway, Somersworth and Portsmouth “entirely unacceptable.”
“VA cannot jeopardize our veterans’ access to care in this manner, and I am calling for them to drop these recommendations,” Mr. Pappas said in a statement. “Granite State veterans should not face undue barriers or even longer travel times to obtain the care and services they have earned. Our [community-based outpatient clinics] are important community hubs, and I won’t stop fighting to protect them.”
The proposal is sparking debate over whether more veterans will be subjected again to longer wait times. A VA inspector general’s report in 2015 said that more than 300,000 veterans likely died while waiting for health care — and nearly twice as many are still waiting for appointments. The report cited “serious” problems with enrollment data that made it impossible to know how many veterans were seeking treatment with the VA.
The new VA report includes summaries of multiple “listening sessions” with veterans around the nation, and many of them express frustration about wait times.
“Many veterans cited long wait times, complicated pathways to navigate through the system, and frustration that there is not a single number to call for all needs,” the report said. “Some veterans are upset by frequent appointment cancellations, which can increase their wait times for appointments.”
The report added, “Some veterans are also frustrated by experiences scheduling appointments online only to find that the appointment type cannot be scheduled online, the appointment is canceled without notice, and/or that a provider is not available. These issues added more time between when the veteran first tried to schedule the appointment and when the veteran was able to be seen.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale, Montana Republican, said the recommendations will strand veterans in northeastern Montana, where there are “virtually no” Community Care facilities in the VA network and the next VA clinic can be up to 295 miles away. He said the closure of the Miles City VA Community Living Center “will displace several veteran residents without a clear plan for their relocation.”
“What the VA intends to do to Montana veterans is unconscionable,” Mr. Rosendale said. “This administration is clueless about the problems that face veterans living in a frontier state like Montana, otherwise they wouldn’t be recommending the closures of the only clinics within hundreds of miles of some northeastern Montana communities. We simply cannot accept these closures without a clear plan to replace the care that our veterans have earned and been promised. The fact that the VA is including this debacle in its slate of recommendations shows that they are unserious about real reform.”
Congress directed the VA in 2018 to assess its health care system. The department‘s recommendations will go to a commission of presidential appointees, which is expected to release its own proposals next year.