By Barb Strozewski
South Dakota U. S. Representative Kristi Noem hosted a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in Hot Springs at 10 a.m., Thursday, August 14, at the Mueller Center.
The hearing, attended by Chairman of the House VA Committee Jeff Miller and Vice-Chairman Gus Bilirakis, was scheduled to further investigate the VA’s proposed restructuring of the VA Black Hills Health Care System.
Rep. Noem worked with the Committee to secure the following witnesses: Bryan Brewer, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Tim Jurgens, Commander, Department of South Dakota The American Legion, Bob Nelson, Co-Chair of the Save the VA Committee, Amanda Campbell, Member of the Save the VA Committee, Pat Russell, Co-Chair of the Save the VA Committee, and Larry Zimmerman, South Dakota Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Noem met repeatedly with former Secretary of the VA Eric Shinseki and has already joined the South Dakota delegation in requesting that a newly appointed Secretary of the VA Robert McDonald tour the Hot Springs VA.
The meeting Thursday began with the panel of five witnesses from the ‘Save the VA’ committee sitting before the House Veterans Affairs Committee consisting of House Representative Noem, Chairman Miller, Vice Chairman Bilirakis, and Representative Adrian Smith from Nebraska, 3rd District (representing veterans from the Panhandle.)
As the hearing moved from one witness to another, there was one resounding theme: “Continue serving our heros and save this historical, functioning landmark.”
The following excerpts from all six of the ‘Save the VA members have been taken from their written testimonies
Bryan Brewer: Efforts to increase utilization of VA. To date, there has never been a census of the veterans on our reservation. We estimate that there are 3,500 Oglala Lakota veterans and we know not all of these veterans currently utilize the VA. Some are unaware of the services that they have a right to access.
In conclusion, the Hot Springs VA has a long history, strong cultural ties, and an undeniable commitment to veterans’ health. Closing the VA in Hot Springs not only changes the landscape of Hot Springs and western South Dakota, it robs veterans of the unique and specialized care they have received here for decades and should receive them for decades to come.
Tim Jurgens: “The Battle Mountain Sanitarium opened in 1907, offering veterans a complete array of services. Battle Mountain Sanitarium (now part of the Veterans Affairs Black Hills Health Care System) was the 10th and final facility built by the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS). Due to its unique location surrounded by the Black Hills, according to House Concurrent Resolution No. 1004, Hot Springs was formerly called Minnekahta, which means ‘warm waters’‘ in the Lakota language.
Bob Nelson: In 1996 the VA merged two VA hospitals, the Ft. Meade Hospital in Sturgis, S.D. and the Hot Springs Hospital to become the Black Hills Health Care System. He likened it to a ‘shotgun wedding.’ Further regarding the Domiciliary/PTSD: he states in his written testimony: The VA has repeatedly stated another reason for closing the Hot Springs VA is because the majority of veterans that seek treatment at the Hot Springs Domiciliary come from the Rapid City area, just 60 miles north of Hot Springs. He cites several items that disprove the previous statement. In summary (per Bob Nelson’s written testimony), The numbers spoken about in his testimony have come from Freedom of Information requests and former VA employees. At town hall meetings and Environmental Scoping meetings, overwhelmingly veterans have told Black Hills management they want the Hot Springs VA to remain open.
Patrick Russell: Little to no analysis was conducted prior to making the decision to close the Hot Springs VA Medical Center and replace it with a Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) and move the 100 bed treatment facility to an urban area in Rapid City. Patrick cites a huge list of systematic discontinued clinical services at Hot Springs Campus beginning in 1996.
Larry Zimmerman: He serves as Secretary of the SD Department of Veterans Affairs. Our department is the voice for SD’s 75,000 veterans. Veterans’ healthcare is a critical issue and it is important that we honor the promise to take care of those individuals who secured and protected our freedoms. Our heros deserve the opportunity to enjoy the rest of their lives and be assured they will have access to quality healthcare. There was much discussion on the value of the PTSD program in Hot Springs, and that people come from all different parts of the country to utilize the program.
It was determined that BMS was amongst the highest ranking historic structures and was the only historical hospital remaining still serving as a medical center.
The SD State Historical Preservation Office does not feel the Black Hills Regional VA Medical Center (management) is being fully transparent and open about the EIS process as regards the potential Hot Springs VA closure. After concluding her testimony Amanda closed with, “ We, as a committee, are calling for Steve DiStasio’s immediate removal.” The audience was on its’ collective feet with resounding approval
When the second panel was seated (Dr Steven Julius and Stephen DiStasio) the house committee began asking questions of them which seemed to largely go unanswered.
Kristi Noem directed several of those questions. Finally, she said: “I don’t care where you get the numbers, I don’t want to hear another , ‘I don’t’ know, or, I’ll get back to you.”
In conclusion, Chairman Miller thanked the witnesses for their hard work. He directed this next remark to Steven DiStasio: “The VA hospital is the ‘heartbeat’ of this community, and I wouldn’t want it to be on my watch when it stopped beating.”
Chairman Miller also said, “The veteran is sacred, the VA is not. It’s an honor to be here, next time I will stay in Hot Springs, not Rapid City.