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The Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C., is shown in this undated file photo.

The Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C., is shown in this undated file photo. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A Department of Veterans Affairs plan that contains nearly $2 trillion in recommended facility closures, consolidations and upgrades across the country could be in jeopardy after 12 senators announced they oppose the agency’s reassessment of its facilities.

“As senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that upholds our obligations to America’s veterans,” according to the joint statement by the senators. “We believe the recommendations put forth [by the Asset and Infrastructure Review] Commission are not reflective of that goal, and would put veterans in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage, which is why we are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move forward.”

The statement was issued by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Joe Manchin, D-W.V.; Mike Rounds, R-S.D.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V.; Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; John Thune, R-S.D.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Six of the senators — Tester, Rounds, Brown, Murray, Manchin and Hassan — are members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

In May, Manchin, Rounds, Heinrich and Capito introduced a bill, "Elimination of the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission," which would remove the commission. Thune, Lujan and Hassan are cosponsors. The bill doesn’t say why they want to eliminate the commission, but the senators have been vocal about their opposition to the VA’s closure recommendations in their respective states.

The VA was required to establish the Asset and Infrastructure Review as part of the Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act of 2018, or MISSION Act. The review was designed to analyze the health care needs of veterans as well as the department’s infrastructure. That same year, Congress approved the creation of an Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission to work on the "modernization or realignment" of VA properties.

The review of VA facilities determined which facilities were underutilized, outdated and should be closed, where to invest more resources, the demand for which services, and the needs of the veteran demographic in each market.

The VA released the commission’s report in March, which recommended facility closures and upgrades to provide better services to veteran patients in their respective markets across the country. The report listed 35 medical center closures. However, some closures are recommended to be replaced by new buildings and, in some cases, other locations. Other medical centers were recommended to close permanently.

The VA report cited old, deteriorating buildings and a projected decrease in demand for VA services in the areas where it is suggested hospitals be closed. Furthermore, the veteran population in each market varied.

Additionally, the VA proposed more than 100 multi-specialty, community-based outpatient clinics. The agency also recommended clinic closures and consolidation of services to other nearby VA clinics or medical centers.

But two different independent reports examining the VA’s review found the work was deficient.

The VA Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office in December and March, respectively, issued reports that found the VA's infrastructure recommendations were incomplete, inaccurate and outdated.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged the data was outdated at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in April. He said he had a team of health care experts and former VA senior officials look at the data.

“They came back with an answer that I feared, which is that they think the data is not up to speed in light of the [coronavirus] pandemic,” McDonough told House lawmakers.

The senators in their statement Tuesday said they feel because the review is flawed the commission is not needed.

“The commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure, and together we remain dedicated to providing the department with the resources and tools it needs to continue delivering quality care and earned services to veterans in 21st century facilities — now and into the future,” according to the senators’ statement.

Because of this, the senators said they will not move forward with nominations to fill empty posts on the review commission.

There was supposed to be nine members on the review commission. The White House and the VA provided five nominees for the commission. Four others are nominated as commission members by leaders in the House and Senate. The final nominee was announced June 22.

Melissa Bryant, acting assistant secretary for VA’s public and intergovernmental affairs, said President Joe Biden requested nearly $20 billion in new VA infrastructure spending to replace and upgrade old buildings.

“President Biden has insisted that our veterans in the 21st century should not be forced to receive care in early 20th century buildings,” Bryant said. “The median age of VA’s hospitals is nearly 60 years old, and that’s why the president requested nearly $20 billion in new VA infrastructure spending last year and it is why he has requested the largest ever investment in VA infrastructure in his [fiscal 2023] budget. Whatever Congress decides to do with the AIR Commission, which was called for in the 2018 MISSION Act, we will continue to fight for the funding and modernization that our veterans deserve.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, a government employee union representing VA workers, applauded the announcement by the senators to block the review commission nominations.

“We thank the committee for listening to the voices of veterans and front-line workers who have been rallying for months against rubber-stamping the VA’s recommendations to close veteran hospitals and send our nation’s heroes into the private sector where they will pay more for worse outcomes,” Everett Kelley, the union’s president and an Army veteran, said in a prepared statement.

But Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he was disappointed the committee will not hold confirmation hearings on the commission nominees.

“Many of the VA's facilities are empty, underutilized and severely outdated,” he said in a prepared statement on Monday. “We passed the VA MISSION Act to address these issues but by refusing to confirm commissioners, we are essentially shutting down the work of the AIR Commission and possibly our only opportunity to fix this long-standing issue."

Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, also released a statement Monday that condemned the senators' opposition.

"The MISSION Act was signed into law with broad support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and every major veterans service organization,” he said. “It established an Asset and Infrastructure Review — or, AIR — process with nine Senate-confirmed commissioners to recommend updates to VA's failing medical care infrastructure. This process is vital for the future of modern, state-of-the-art VA care. It is wrong for these senators to outright refuse to even consider the nominees put forth by the Biden administration. This decision does an immense disservice to veterans and VA staff who will feel its repercussions for years to come."

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Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.
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