CHARLESTON — Veterans across West Virginia have joined U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito in speaking out against recommendations from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that could cut services at the three VA medical centers in the State.
Manchin, DW.Va., and Capito, RW.Va, participated in a town hall with veterans on Wednesday morning. They were joined by Hershel “Woody” Williams, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, and Edward “Ted” Diaz, secretary of the West Virginia Veterans Assistance Department.
The veterans participated in the town hall by telephone. Other veterans participated in Zoom from locations across the state, including the Northern Panhandle, Charles Town, Clarksburg, Mason County, Logan and Charleston.
Manchin and Capito — along with U.S. Senators Mike Rounds, RS.D. ; and Martin Heinrich, D.N.M. — co-sponsored the elimination of the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review Board (AIR) Act, reintroducing the bill on Monday. The bill was first introduced in 2019.
Manchin said the AIR Commission is similar to the Base Realignment and Closure Process (BRAC) used by the Department of Defense when considering closing military bases.
“I knew, (Capito) knew we all had to stop this thing quickly,” Manchin said. “I only had one co-sponsor back when we started … and (Capito has) fought with us too. So we were both deeply concerned that the AIR Commission was just a BRAC-type commission that would target rural states.
The VA released its Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) report in March. The proposal is to close up to three medical centers and 174 outpatient clinics while creating 255 new health facilities focused on rehabilitation, long-term care and other services for elderly veterans.
As part of the AIR’s recommendations, the Huntington and Clarksburg VA medical centers would stop offering medical and surgical services to inpatients, instead partnering with local hospitals and health care facilities. The Huntington and Clarksburg VAMC’s emergency departments would be converted into urgent care centers.
The AIR report recommends building a new VA medical center to replace the Beckley VAMC, but the new facility would not offer the same medical and surgical services to inpatients. Instead, the new Beckley VAMC would have a new community living center, adult day care, and offer non-surgical outpatient services.
“The recommendations…are going in the wrong direction, eliminating emergency departments and eliminating surgeries, so we’re fighting together to just eliminate this whole process,” Capito said. “It was not well thought out. They haven’t spoken to the stakeholders, in my opinion. They also haven’t spoken to our medical facilities outside of the VA, which is another cause for concern… We’ll fight as hard as we can.
Diaz, who joined Manchin in person for town hall, has been working hard to publicize the AIR report since March. Diaz said if the recommendations are approved by the AIR Commission, President Joe Biden and Congress, it would be devastating for veterans in need of access to health care.
“It’s a reduction in services. It is a reduction in access to health care. It’s a reduction in access to mental health care for our veterans in the state,” Diaz said. “Since then, I have worked with Governor (Jim) Justice, the Legislative Assembly, Senator Manchin, Senator Capito, and our congressional delegation in DC. We are all united to make sure that the public is aware of the meaning of these recommendations, and we are also united to eliminate this.
Williams, who received her Medal of Honor while serving with the US Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of World War II, recently spent several days at a VA medical facility. Williams, 98, said local health care cannot provide the kinds of specialized services that veterans need.
“I couldn’t have received more perfect care if I could have afforded it,” Williams said. “They took such good care of me and the doctors were very considerate, very concerned and very passionate about what they were doing. We have to kill this thing somehow.