CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – A group of U.S. senators has agreed to effectively dismantle a committee charged by the Department of Veterans Affairs with bringing closures, downsizing and other significant changes to medical facilities across the country, Senator Joe Manchin said Monday .
The West Virginia Democrat, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said there is bipartisan support to prevent vacancies on the VA’s Assets and Infrastructure Review Commission and to terminate the committee in the next National Defense Authorization Act.
The committee had recommended the closure or downsizing of several older facilities, a proposal that Manchin feared would significantly alter services to rural veterans across the country. But other groups had welcomed the commission’s work, saying it was necessary to modernize and improve the VA’s health offerings.
Manchin said in a statement that without Senate approval of the AIR committee and its nominees, no committee will be established and the process set out in the VA Mission Act of 2018 “will not proceed.” The law required Veterans Affairs to make recommendations for its medical facilities and health care, whether through expansions, relocations, closures or changes to services.
For example, the recommendations would have downsized three of VA’s four medical centers in West Virginia and closed four community outpatient clinics in New Mexico.
The group of senators said in the statement that the VA’s recommendations to the committee do not reflect meeting the country’s obligations to its veterans.
The recommendations would have disadvantaged veterans “in both rural and urban areas, and so we announce that this process does not have our support and will not progress,” the statement said. “The Commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure, and together we remain committed to providing the department with the resources and tools it needs to continue to deliver quality care and merited services to veterans in 21st century facilities – now and in the future.”
In the letter, Manchin joined Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Martin Henrich and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Patty Murray of Washington, and Republicans Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Mike Rounds and John Thune of South Dakota, Rob Portman from Ohio and Steve Daines from Montana.
The Concerned Veterans for America group said the senators’ decision will only harm veterans.
“To say this is disappointing is an understatement,” the group’s senior adviser Darin Selnick said in a statement. “Put simply, this decision is shortsighted and will hurt veterans by trapping them in a broken and outdated system that was not built to meet their needs. The AIR commission was the best opportunity to modernize the VA health care system to meet the needs of the veterans it serves.”
The VA issued preliminary recommendations in March, prompting a bipartisan group of senators led by Manchin to initially ask President Joe Biden to ensure nationwide perspectives were considered by the AIR committee.