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Manchin: VA Medical Centers safe from recommended cuts for now

From left, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, Veterans of Foreign Wars Adjutant/Quartermaster Kevin Light, Department of Veterans Assistance Secretary Edward Diaz, and DVA Chief of Staff Randy Coleman, talk after Manchin’s AIR Commission announcement at the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in Charleston. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said the committee created to review cuts to rural veterans’ hospitals across the U.S. — including three of West Virginia’s VA medical centers — has been brought to a halt.

Speaking in front of the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument on the grounds of the State Capitol Building on Monday afternoon, Manchin, D-W.Va., said the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will not vote on a slate of nominees submitted by President Joe Biden last week for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission.

The nine-member AIR Committee is tasked with reviewing recommendations released by the VA in March. The AIR Report recommended a nearly $2 trillion proposal for closing as many as three medical centers and 174 outpatient clinics while shifting focus to rehabilitation, long-term care, and other services aimed at older veterans.

“I’ve got the whole committee on board, so we’re just shutting down everything,” said Manchin. “No appointments. No confirmations. So, they’re dead in the water.”

As part of the AIR recommendations, Huntington and Clarksburg VA medical centers would stop offering inpatient medical and surgical services, instead partnering with local hospitals and healthcare facilities. The Huntington and Clarksburg VAMC’s emergency departments would convert to urgent care centers.

The AIR Report recommends constructing a new VA Medical Center to replace the Beckley VAMC, but the new facility would not offer the same inpatient medical and surgical services. Instead, the new Beckley VAMC would have a new community living center, adult day care, and offer non-surgical outpatient services.

Manchin with U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., reintroduced the Elimination of the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission Act in May The bill was first introduced in 2019. Manchin said he is working with Rounds and others to have the bill included in the next version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“Mike Rounds, my compadre Republican, my friend from South Dakota, felt the same as I felt. So in 2019, we introduced the bill to get rid of AIR,” Manchin said. “We’re going to put that bill on the NDAA. That kills it in the code.”

Capito joined a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators later Monday afternoon in releasing a joint statement praising the halt of the AIR Commission and announcing their opposition to the VA’s recommendations.

“As Senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that upholds our obligations to America’s veterans,” Capito said. “We believe the recommendations put forth to the AIR 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 AIR Commission has until Jan. 31, 2023, to revise and send a new list of recommendations to the President, who then has until March 30, 2023, to approve the recommendations and send them to Congress. Lawmakers would have 34 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval, otherwise the VA would be required to implement the recommendations.

Manchin said the goal of the 2018 VA MISSION Act that required the AIR Report and created the AIR Commission was a well-intentioned effort to address issues in the last decade with wait times at hospitals. However, Manchin said the VA is now overcorrecting in the opposite direction by reducing services and pushing veterans to local health providers. Manchin said the recommendations come down hard on rural areas where healthcare services are limited.

“We’re looking to improve it; we’re not looking to eliminate,” Manchin said. “In these rural areas and rural states like ours, you barely have enough medical services to take care of the general population. The VA always gets special care, and it should. Anyone who puts on a uniform and is willing to give their life for you and I for the freedoms we have should be at the front of the line getting the best of services.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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