WASHINGTON, D.C.— Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), Senator John Thune (R-SD) and Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD) today sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to request a meeting in Hot Springs regarding the proposed changes to the Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS). The delegation was joined by Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE), Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Representative Adrian Smith (R-NE).

The Senators and Representatives expressed “frustration and disappointment” in how proposed changes to the BHHCS have progressed. The BHHCS gave its word that the process would be open, transparent, and inclusive. However, a September 10, 2012 meeting between BHHCS officials and the Save the VA Committee broke down when the BHHCS said it was not in a position to negotiate on its proposal. Since that time, many stakeholders have lost trust in the process and fear that the actions of the BHHCS over the past ten months were all for show.

The Senators and Representatives wrote: “We remain committed to ensuring that our veterans receive the highest quality of care and believe that their voices and concerns need to be a part of any proposed changes. … Given the recent developments as to how this process is moving forward, we are requesting a meeting with you, the tri-state congressional delegation and members of the Save the VA Committee in Hot Springs, SD. We believe that it is important you hear directly from the members of the community, our veterans, and other stakeholders directly affected.”

The full text of the letter is below:

 

October 2, 2012

 

The Honorable Eric Shinseki

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20420

 

Dear Secretary Shinseki:

We write to express frustration and disappointment in how proposed changes to the Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS) have progressed. We were hopeful that the BHHCS would keep its word about making this process open, transparent, and inclusive, as you assured us would be the case in your letter dated May 18, 2012. We were assured that public comment and feedback would be seriously considered and, as appropriate, be incorporated into any final proposal. It has come to our attention that at a September 10, 2012 meeting between the BHHCS Veterans Administration (VA) and the Save the VA Committee (the Committee), the meeting broke down when the BHHCS said it was not in a position to negotiate on its proposal. Whether this was a misstatement or fact, trust has been lost, relationships damaged, and many fear that the actions of the BHHCS over the past ten months were all for show.

When the BHHCS made the proposal public last December, stakeholders were led to believe that this was not a final proposal and input from the public would be given full and fair consideration. The Committee never intended its counterproposal to be an all-or-nothing alternative to the BHHCS proposal. They were led to believe, as were we, that the process moving forward would be collaborative. Recently, BHHCS sent its original proposal and all other proposals received to the VA Central Office (VACO) for review.

We remain committed to ensuring that our veterans receive the highest quality of care and believe that their voices and concerns need to be a part of any proposed changes. Several Veteran Service Organizations, tribal governments and the State of South Dakota have issued resolutions expressing serious concerns with the BHHCS proposal as written and concerns have also been raised by some veterans and organizations in Nebraska and Wyoming. Concerns such as the extent to which major components of the BHHCS plan have been vetted with private health care providers and facilities, how the BHHCS proposal can effectively provide care to veterans in areas already declared “medically underserved” or with Critical Access Hospital designation, and concerns expressed by Native veterans relative to the Indian Health Service need to be considered. We are worried that these concerns may not have been addressed in the BHHCS proposal submitted to the VACO. These concerns are addressed in the Committee’s counterproposal.

Given the recent developments as to how this process is moving forward, we are requesting a meeting with you, the tri-state congressional delegation and members of the Save the VA Committee in Hot Springs, SD. We believe that it is important you hear directly from the members of the community, our veterans, and other stakeholders directly affected. We ask that this meeting take place as soon as possible and any action on this proposal be delayed until a meeting can take place. Finally, we ask for transparency as to how proposals are evaluated and what criteria are used to make any final decision.

We appreciate your attention to this issue and your timely response.

Sincerely,

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