Senators say VA clinics in New Mexico towns will remain open

By:  Robert Nott

ALBUQUERQUE — Sometimes, the underdogs win — and Monday was one of those days.

Thought to be on the chopping block for months after a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs commission called for their closure, veterans health clinics in Española; Raton; Las Vegas, N.M.; and Gallup have been saved.

In what Sen. Martin Heinrich called a victory for rural New Mexico, he and a bipartisan group of senators voiced their collective opposition to the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission process moving forward in the U.S. Senate — a move that basically killed the effort to shutter the clinics.

“That commission will not be seated and not be moving forward,” Heinrich said during a news conference Monday at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough.

Earlier this year, the commission recommended the closure of the four New Mexico clinics — and others around the country — as part of a restructuring of veterans’ health care.

That report suggested veterans using the rural clinics could go to other community health care providers or drive to the next closest veterans’ medical facility.

In New Mexico, Heinrich, D-N.M., said that meant veterans having to spend “hour after hour on the road to be able to come to a facility like this one [the VA hospital in Albuquerque].”

That March recommendation relied on patient enrollment figures at those four clinics. It said the Las Vegas site saw a decrease in enrollment of more than 55 percent in the past five years.

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 closure recommendation was met with loud opposition from veterans and their families in the four cities. Heinrich, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández held town meetings about the potential closures, and many veterans and their families decried the move, calling it an affront to the sacrifices they had made on behalf of their country.

McDonough in the news conference said his agency would not pursue that idea but still has a “modernization challenge” getting some of those clinics up to date with world-class health services.

He said “we have to get out of those dated facilities” — some of which, he said, were built decades ago.

He said any future discussion of closure plans should include another look at enrollment figures, which may be increasing after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

McDonough’s visit came the same day Heinrich tweeted he was “hell bent on saving these clinics so vets in rural areas can get quality health care close to home. Today, I joined [Montana Sen. John Tester] and a bipartisan group of Senators to end the AIR commission process & keep these clinics open.”

Also sending a message on the clinics was Luján, who joined in a collective statement from the senators saying those closures would “put veterans in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage.”

Speaking by phone Monday, Leger Fernández, who also voiced opposition to the potential closures, said she was pleased the advocacy work conducted by those who wanted to keep the clinics going has paid off.

She said many veterans said “those clinics have saved their lives; they made it easier to get mental health care.”

One veteran told her a clinic staffer stopped him from taking his own life.

“These are the sorts of things that can only happen when veterans trust local providers and they in turn respond to their needs immediately,” she said.

Nevertheless, rural clinics still face challenges, McDonough said. He said one obstacle for those smaller facilities is recruiting and hiring qualified health care professionals. He said the country as a whole is “facing an overall health care worker challenge … and the VA is no outlier.”

Legislative reports on the state’s health care workforce said New Mexico lacks medical professionals in many critical areas and needs more than 6,000 registered nurses and 325 doctors, among other professionals.

McDonough said a more serious problem facing the VA is a shortage of human services professionals. A number of reports over the past few years have said those shortfalls have slowed the hiring of new employees for veteran clinics and other facilities and led to growing vacancy rates among all VA departments.

“We need better HR specialists to help us recruit and hire,” he said.

He said the the public should expect the VA to look for better ways to improve veterans’ care.

But, in response to a question as to whether his agency would initiate a new report on veteran health care facilities, he said he did not expect a “whole new set of recommendations anytime soon.”

McDonough said the coronavirus pandemic presented a number of challenges for veteran clinics trying to provide services for clients who, in some cases, were reluctant to seek help for fear of contracting the virus or taking a slot away from another veteran.

That in turn has led to a “deferred care” situation in which some of those veterans now require more attention.

He said those veterans need to understand, “We are open. We are here for you. We work for you,” McDonough said. “Please do not miss an opportunity to seek care.”