From the moment the announcement was made, an ominous gloom has been hanging on the shoulders of the residents of Hot Springs. On Dec. 12, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a statement proposing to essentially shut down the Hot Springs VA facility, which was received by the community as a proposal to essentially shut down the town itself.
Hot Springs is a community of about 3,700 residents, all of whom face the same challenges experienced by other small towns across the nation: decreasing populations, economic struggles, reduced tourism, drought, closed business doors, and empty homes.
Rather than accept the VA’s proposal as an inevitable fact of life, the town has rallied together to petition the government not to eliminate the services and programs provided by their local facility. First and foremost, their concern is for the continued care of the veterans receiving treatment in Hot Springs. Beyond that, they are concerned for the survival of their town.
Later in December, Hot Springs residents formed working committees to begin the arduous process of making their case to the government. Their motto: “We are the veterans town.” They have only a few more weeks to spread their message and prove to the VA that the Hot Springs facility is too valuable to the entire region to let go.
Over the last month, they’ve gathered countless testimonies from veterans who prefer to receive treatment in Hot Springs. Many of them travel from nearby northwest Nebraska, western Wyoming, and the Pine Ridge Reservation. Without the Hot Springs VA, they would have to travel an additional 50 miles or more for care, something the committee members feel is unfair and disrespectful to veterans who served our country. They should have a choice, and a voice, in the matter.
The VA’s plan to restructure also means relocating nearly 330 employees to either Sturgis or Rapid City. Losing over 300 white collar wage earners and their families would be economically devastating to the community. The VA doesn’t operate in a vacuum—it affects everything around it. Suddenly, when those salaries aren’t being spent in Hot Springs, businesses, restaurants, or anything that depends on city funding via taxes will feel the combined loss of millions of dollars. You can’t remove an entire fraction of the population and not expect this type of negative ripple effect.
Here’s another glitch in the restructuring plan: The VA so generously announced that Fall River Hospital should be able to provide health care for the displaced veterans. But as Rich Nelson explained, the VA uses a very strict and secure electronic records system which would require the newly built hospital to undergo expensive upgrades in order to comply.
Our state’s congressional delegation has asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for a more detailed explanation of the cost benefits of this plan as well as more time to review all the aspects of this proposal. Some proponents of the plan have called this a stall tactic and “more foot dragging.” Those professionals who may need to relocate to Sturgis or Rapid City need a decision now so that they can enroll their kids in a new school, they argue. I think we should be less concerned about enrollment timelines and more concerned about not uprooting these kids from their current school in the first place.
Why is it always “out with old, in with the new”? Granted, renovating aging buildings is costly, and it may be more costly than building a brand new facility. But let’s not forget the other costs of this decision—is saving money on construction worth economically devastating an entire community?
Now is not the time to give up on this wonderful facility. The concerned citizens of Hot Springs are asking everyone to take a moment and call their Congressional Representatives and declare that not only should the Hot Spring VA continue to remain open but it’s also time to consider new ways to expand its services so it can grow into the future.
Sen. Tim Johnson: 202-224-5842; 800-537-0025.
Sen. John Thune: 202-224-2321; 866-850-3855.
Rep. Kristi Noem: 202-225-2801; 605-791-4673 (Rapid City)
Sen. Mike Johanns: 202-224-4224; 308-632-6032 (Scottsbluff)
Sen. Ben Nelson: 202-224-6551; 308-631-7614 (Scottsbluff)
Rep. Adrian Smith: 202-225-6435; 308-633-6333 (Scottsbluff)
Sen. Michael Enzi: 202-224-3424; 888-250-1879
Sen. John Barrasso: 202-224-6441; 866-235-9553
Rep. Cynthia Lummis: 202-225-2311; 888-879-3599