The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo.

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A process will begin in 2022 to review Department of Veterans Affairs facilities across the country to determine which buildings to close and where to invest more resources.

The VA will submit its recommendations about the realignment of VA facilities in January, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday during a Senate hearing. Those recommendations will go to a commission, which will spend the next year looking at the VA’s plan, conducting hearings, and submitting its own proposals to the White House.

“We’re on the verge of some very big decisions here,” McDonough said.

Congress approved the creation in 2018 of an Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission to work on the “modernization or realignment” of VA properties. As of Wednesday, the White House had selected seven of the nine commissioners, McDonough said.

The commissioners have not yet been named publicly. The law mandates the commission reflects the demographics of VA patients, and some commissioners must have expertise in either the VA health care system or federal capital asset planning and management. Three of the commissioners must be representatives from veterans service organizations.

If the asset-review commission determines a facility no longer meets the VA's needs, it's supposed to recommend how the facility could be reconfigured, repurposed, consolidated, realigned, exchanged, leased, replaced, sold or disposed, the law states.

The commission must send its recommendation to President Joe Biden by Jan. 31, 2023. Biden will then decide to reject the plan or forward it to Congress. Congress can either accept all of the recommendations or vote down the proposal.

The commission-style process has been compared to the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure program. Some lawmakers and veterans organizations have expressed concerns about the process, arguing that divesting facilities could create gaps in access to VA medical care and cause the agency to send more veterans into the private sector.

In 2019, two senators sought to revoke the law. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., introduced legislation to eliminate the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission. The law did not make it through Congress.

"I do not support the creation of a BRAC-like commission that seeks out facilities to close down – with no input from Congress," Rounds said at the time.

McDonough on Wednesday spoke briefly about the process during a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing focused on the “state of the VA.” He encouraged lawmakers to look at the market assessment data shared with Congress earlier this year that the VA used as its basis for the recommendations to be released in January.

Some of the data was collected before the coronavirus pandemic, which “has permanently changed the delivery of health care,” McDonough said. The VA is working on an analysis about the effects of the pandemic on health care and how that might affect the commission’s work.

“As I have said previously, the decisions made under the AIR Commission will have impacts in the lives of veterans and communities across the nation for generations to come,” McDonough said.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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