Senators Block VA Review of Hospital Closures, Upgrades

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Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., questions Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as she testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

A bipartisan group of 12 U.S. senators said on Monday that they oppose a commission tasked with reviewing the Veterans Affairs' health care system and will block the process for seating panel members, effectively ending its work.

The lawmakers, led by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said recommendations on hospital realignment and closures published earlier this year by the VA as part of the Asset and Infrastructure Review process were "not reflective of the goal" of the law that created the commission and would "put veterans in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage."

The group of senators said that they would not support confirmation hearings for the nominees to serve on the commission, which would stop them from meeting and completing the review.

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"We are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move forward," wrote the senators. "The commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure."

The Asset and Infrastructure Review commission was created in 2018 as part of the VA MISSION Act to review the VA's vast holdings of real estate to determine which facilities were underutilized or outdated and could be shed and which should be expanded and modernized.

The effort has been compared with the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closure process, although the VA's recommendations included new construction of more than 30 new hospitals and 225 clinics and other facilities in addition to the closure of 17 medical centers and dozens of aging or underused clinics.

Opposition to the report began as soon as it was published. Senators from four states that faced reductions in VA services filed legislation to scuttle the commission, and Monday's announcement may sound its death knell.

The group of senators opposing the commission included Tester and Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Mike Rounds, R-S.D.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; 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.

Even before the announcement Monday, the process was facing delays: The commission was to have begun public hearings this spring and deliberate its own recommendations for delivery to President Joe Biden by February 2023.

But while the Biden administration has nominated eight people to serve, the ninth was to be nominated by Senate Republican leaders and was never announced.

The senators' announcement has rankled some Republicans in the House and Senate who say the Mission Act passed Congress handily and the commission's work is required by law.

"I am astonished by the announcement today that several Senators, including the Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, are refusing to fulfill their responsibility under the law to confirm members of the AIR Commission," said Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in a statement. "The Mission Act was signed into law with broad support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and every major veterans service organization."

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group that supports the expansion of private health care options for veterans in the VA system, called the decision "short-sighted."

CVA senior adviser Darin Selnick, who served on a VA commission in 2016 to study public and private options for VA health care, said the commission is the department's best chance for modernizing health services.

"Simply put, this decision ... will hurt veterans by keeping them trapped in a broken and outdated system not built to address their needs," Selnick said in a statement Monday.

Paul Dillard, the American Legion's national commander, also expressed concern over the impact on VA health care modernization.

"While the process thus far has been plagued with delays, recommendations based on problematic data, and commission nominees that are not in keeping with the VA MISSION Act, there remains a need to modernize and improve the national health care infrastructure for veterans and their families," Dillard said in a statement Monday.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough has said reform is needed to provide state-of-the-art health care to current and future veterans. During a press conference June 22, he expressed frustration over the pace of the nomination approval process that includes a VA under secretary for health but said VA is committed to upgrading its physical infrastructure.

"We are bound and determined to do right by our veterans," McDonough said. "We will not be deterred from the important effort of modernization."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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