Local VA clinic will now remain open

By:  Phil Scherer

The local Veteran Affairs clinic is no longer in danger of being shut down, New Mexico’s U.S. Senators announced Monday afternoon.

The Department of Veterans Affairs in March recommended the closure of 174 VA clinics across all 50 states, including four in New Mexico – in Las Vegas, Española, Gallup and Raton. If the recommendation had been followed, local veterans would have been forced to seek treatment at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, nearly two hours away from the current clinic in Las Vegas.

However, that is no longer a fear after the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee – led by efforts made by New Mexico Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich – announced its opposition to the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission process moving forward in the Senate, which was a requirement for going through with the closures.

“As Senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that upholds our obligations to America’s veterans. 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 Commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure, and together we remain dedicated to providing the Department with the resources and tools it needs to continue delivering quality care and earned services to veterans in 21st century facilities—now and into the future,” the statement from the committee said.

The commission will no longer be approved by the senate, ending the effort to close the clinics altogether.

“Throughout my time in the Senate, I have worked closely with these communities to open and support their CBOCs, which are an example of what the VA has been doing right to meet the needs of rural veterans,” Heinrich said.

Heinrich, along with Luján, visited Las Vegas in April to host listening sessions with local veterans, where they heard stories of how the closures would impact local veterans, and how impractical it would have been to expect them to visit the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque every time they needed medical care.

The elected officials then took those stories back to their colleagues in the Senate, which helped lead to Monday’s decision.

“Since March when the VA released its recommendations for veteran clinic closures to today, I've been vocal that closing facilities will adversely affect the care our veterans receive and the family members that care for them,” said Luján. “I’m proud to join a bipartisan group of Senators announcing that we will not be moving forward with the AIR Commission process, effectively abolishing the Commission and ending the conversation on clinic closures. Our nation’s veterans deserve the highest-level of care. We need to be looking at ways to expand access to care in rural America, not closing clinics and pushing veterans to travel hours or even days for care.

Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez also applauded the actions of the Senators on Monday.

“Over the last few months, I listened to veterans in Raton, Las Vegas, Española, and Gallup describe how the VA community health clinics provided them access to essential care. I carried their stories and worries about losing these clinics to my colleagues and to Secretary McDonough.,” said Rep. Leger Fernandez. “We promised the vets we would do everything we could to keep the clinics open and the Senate action to halt the AIR Commission keeps that promise. The veterans earned the right to receive care wherever they live. Now it’s time to focus on increasing care at our rural clinics and for our vets - from increased mental health in the STRONG Act to addressing harm from burn pits in the PACT Act.”

In 2018 Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law the VA MISSION Act. Among its many provisions, the law required the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to research, develop and publish a list of recommendations intended to modernize VA medical facilities and health care delivery—including through facility expansions, relocations, closures or changes in services. The law further directed those recommendations to be reviewed by a presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed Commission, which would then report its views of the recommendations to the President who could end the process or present recommendations to Congress for a vote.

In his listening session, Heinrich told local veterans that the recommendations were made without taking the impact to rural communities, like Las Vegas, into account.

The VA made its recommendations earlier this year based on the decline that local VA clinics in rural New Mexico have seen over the past five years. That includes a 55 percent decline in unique patients at the Las Vegas clinic, with more decline expected over the next decade, according to the VA’s recommendation.

However, Heinrich said at the time he believes the statistics used in the report didn’t take into account the current reality, as many numbers used are from 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Everything is different now, Heinrich said as he spoke to the local veterans.

Luján agreed in his meeting with veterans at New Mexico Highlands University Wednesday afternoon, saying that across New Mexico, 32 of the 33 counties in the state are facing healthcare staffing shortages, making it more difficult than ever for individuals, and especially veterans, to access the care they need.