Thanks, but no thanks.

That essentially was the response Wednesday from U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to a request from South Dakota's congressional delegation for a meeting in Hot Springs to discuss a proposed reorganization of VA health services in the Black Hills.

Instead of coming to Hot Springs, Shinseki suggested in a letter dated Wednesday that an undersecretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs would be available to meet on the issue. And that meeting would be in Washington, D.C., not in Hot Springs, where many VA medical facilities could be closed.

After two months of waiting, the delegation and members of the Save the VA Committee in Hot Springs were disappointed with Shinseki's reply.

"From my standpoint, it's pretty disappointing that for a year now we've been trying to negotiate in good faith and apparently all we've done is waste a lot of time," said Hot Springs Mayor Don DeVries.

For the past year DeVries and other members of the Save the VA Committee have worked with Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., in opposing a plan that would close most of the existing VA medical complex in Hot Springs and expand facilities in Rapid City and Sturgis.

The original proposal would maintain a VA clinic and dialysis unit in Hot Springs and contract for other medical services with private providers there and elsewhere. That plan also would close the existing residential rehabilitation program in Hot Springs and build a new one in Rapid City.

In his letter, Shinseki said the VA has not made a final decision on the structure of the VA health system in the Black Hills. But he noted that with a new outpatient clinic in Hot Springs, VA providers would continue to offer clinical care in a "modern, more efficient building designed to provide primary care, mental health and some specialty care."

On the question of expanding services provided by community medical providers, Shinseki said the VA had "purchased specialty and long-term care from community health-care facilities for over 20 years."

After VA discussions with community providers, financial reviews and consideration of community feedback, "we feel comfortable that if a decision is given to move forward with the … proposal, these partnerships would be successful," Shinseki said.

DeVries said the Save the VA Committee has offered better alternatives to maintain and improve existing facilities and add work-development projects with private businesses that could benefit veterans, the VA and the community. That work continues, despite the periodic discouraging news from Washington, DeVries said.

"I'm still very hopeful he'll consider those things," DeVries said. "We're still continuing with our plans."

The three members of South Dakota's congressional delegation sent out a unified response to the Shinseki letter. And it wasn't positive.

"The secretary's response is not good enough," Noem said. "Eight members of Congress requested that the secretary come to Hot Springs and meet with our veterans and the community. Deferring a meeting to his undersecretary in Washington, D.C. is not a productive use of anyone's time."

Noem, Johnson and Thune were joined by other congressional members from Wyoming and Nebraska in signing the Oct. 2 letter to Shinseki requesting the Hot Springs meeting.

Thune said he was "extremely disappointed" in Shinseki's response. Shinseki is "the only senior official at the VA who can negotiate in good faith," Thune said. He urged the secretary to reconsider his offer.

Johnson agreed that a meeting with an undersecretary was not enough.

"I'll continue working with Sec. Shinseki to ensure the views of affected veterans, area communities and the VA employees are heard," he said.

To read more: http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/va-secretary-rejects-congressional-delegation-s-request-for-hot-springs/article_c3152fb9-d6dd-5df8-abbf-12da24f556fa.html?comment_form=true

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