N.M. delegates: Closing VA centers a mistake

By:  Robert Nott

Some of New Mexico’s political leaders voiced opposition Monday to a new federal report’s recommendation for future closure of several veterans health clinics in the state where enrollment has declined.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Asset and Infrastructure Review, released Monday, said the agency should centralize services in major hubs nationwide, where demand remains high. It recommends shutting down smaller facilities and letting community health centers provide services for veterans there.

New Mexico clinics suggested for closure in the review include those in Española, Gallup, Las Vegas and Raton. The Las Vegas site saw a decrease in enrollment of over 55 percent in the past five years, the report says.

Enrollment dropped by just 2.1 percent in that period at the Española facility, according to the report, but is expected to continue declining. The report suggests veterans in that city could drive to Santa Fe for services.

The idea didn’t sit well with three Democratic congressional delegates, who said they will push back against any effort to close veterans health centers in New Mexico.

“Our nation’s veterans deserve the highest-level of care,” U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Northern New Mexico Democrat, said in a statement. “Closing these facilities will adversely affect the care they receive and I will fight against any recommendation that closes facilities or requires our Veterans travel longer and further for care. It is also unconscionable to push our Veterans for VA care to local providers that are already strained.”

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, who serves as chairman of Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, said in a statement, “Closing down community-based outpatient clinics that New Mexico veterans rely on is not an option — and it will not happen without a fight.”

A statement from U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández said she has “serious concerns” about the proposed closures.

“It is our nation’s solemn obligation to provide veterans the health care, services, and support they have earned,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, these closures would jeopardize that obligation and make it harder for veterans to receive essential health services.”

Leger Fernández said she learned during visits with veterans in rural communities it is often difficult for them to access health care.

The clinic closures wouldn’t happen immediately.

New Mexico Veterans Services Secretary Sonya Smith said in a news release Monday she had been briefed on the report by Sonja Brown, interim director of the state Veterans Affairs Health Care System. She said Brown “stressed that these are only recommendations in the report, that all listings are open for debate, and that any changes would be at least 10 to 20 years away.”

The Veterans Affairs report, based on 2019 data, says New Mexico had 69,090 veterans enrolled in the agency’s health care program that year and is projected to see a nearly 4 percent decrease by fiscal year 2029.

The counties with the largest number of patients are Bernalillo, Sandoval and Santa Fe.

Demand for services such as inpatient medical and surgical procedures and mental health care is expected to decrease over the next 10 years, the report says. But demand for long-term care facilities could grow by close to 19 percent in that decade.

To accommodate rising long-term care needs, the report recommends modernizing the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, converting dual-patient rooms into single-patient rooms and expanding the women’s health center.