Four VA clinics in New Mexico to remain open

By:  Ryan Boetel

Four Veterans Affairs clinics in rural New Mexico are no longer at risk of closing, which would have forced veterans to travel hundreds of miles to seek care.

The Department of Veterans Affairs had recommended that VA community-based outpatient clinics in Las Vegas, Raton, Española and Gallup be closed, in part, because of a decline in patient volume in the last five years and projected declines for the rest of the decade. The recommendation came as part of a process aimed at modernizing Veterans Affairs clinics, which could include closing and relocating services.

“I’ve been hell bent on saving these clinics so vets in rural areas can get quality health care close to home,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said on Twitter. “Today, I joined (Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana) and a bipartisan group of senators to end the (Asset and Infrastructure Review) commission process (and) keep these clinics open.”

A spokesman for Heinrich, who is the chair of the of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the VA, said a bipartisan group of senators was able to essentially eliminate the commission that would have reviewed the recommendation to close the clinics. Senators refused to seat any members on the review commission.

The AIR commission had been created by the VA MISSION Act, which was signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018. The act created a process to try to modernize the VA through a mixture of expanding, closing, relocating and changing the types of services the VA provides.

Heinrich, who in April traveled to Las Vegas and spoke with veterans who would have been affected by the closures, talked about the importance of the rural clinics in Albuquerque on Monday alongside Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center. McDonough also has events in New Mexico on Tuesday.

McDonough said that the VA still has to modernize its facilities. But he was critical of the process that led to the recommendation to close the New Mexico clinics.

“I think that a well-functioning process to modernize our health care facilities will be one that is carried out more publicly, one that is carried out in greater consultation with our stakeholders, one that’s carried out in a way that doesn’t surprise people who rely on our services,” he said.

And even though the clinics are staying open, he said the VA will face challenges in trying to improve its facilities.

“Even as there are fewer vets in the country, health care costs for veterans, as health care costs for all Americans can continue to go up,” he said. “And so I think a reasonable question is, how can we manage those costs over time?”

The four clinics that were in danger of being shut down each served between 816 and 1,495 patients in fiscal year 2019. If they would have closed, the veterans in those communities likely would have had to travel to Albuquerque to seek care.

“In New Mexico, we have hours and hours on the road to be able to come to a facility like this one,” Heinrich said. “It’s that really frontier type of rural setting that is particularly challenging for a lot of our older veterans.”

The rest of New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegation – Sen. Ben Ray Luján, and Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury – had also spoken against the recommended closures.

“From day one, I’ve been clear that the process to close (four) veteran health clinics in NM didn’t have my support,” Luján said on Twitter. “It’s not what’s best for our veterans or those who support them. I’m proud to announce the Senate won’t be moving forward with the process.”