Aug 19 2014

Hearing draws large crowd

Hot Springs Star

A Congressional field hearing, hosted by S.D. Representative Kristi Noem and including the chair and vice-chair of the U.S. House Department of Veterans Affairs, filled the Mueller Civic Center Auditorium to near capacity on Thursday morning.

The hearing was scheduled to allow Chairman Jeff Miller and vice-chair Gus Bilirakis to hear first-person testimony on the VA Black Hills Health Care Systems’ proposal to close the Medical Center at its Hot Springs campus and move its PTSD and Substance Abuse treatment programs to Rapid City.

Brief witness opening statement testimony was offered and questions were asked by Miller, Bilirakis, Noem and Nebraska U.S. Representative Adrian Smith.

Among those testifying in Panel 1 – who were opposed to the VA proposal - included Save the VA committee member Amanda Campbell and Committee co-chairs Pat Russell and Bob Nelson, as well as Oglala Sioux Tribal President Brian Brewer, S.D. American Legion Commander Tim Jurgens and Larry Zimmerman, Secretary of the S.D. Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

Panel 2 had two witnesses – BHHCS director Steve DiStasio and Dr. Steven Julius, the medical director for Veterans Integrated Service Network 23 - which oversees the Black Hills Facilities.

At the close of the hearing, Rep. Noem made no effort to hide the fact that she was upset that DiStasio and Julius had seemingly come unprepared for the hearing.

“Frankly,” she said in a press conference, “I am offended that Black Hills Health Care didn’t bring the numbers with them; they had nothing to show. Save the VA had all its data and answered every question asked of them.”

Noem said for an organization that has testified before Congress before, this VA representation was sorely unprepared.

The witnesses in the first panel reiterated data that Save the VA has assembled to refute VA claims of veterans care and renovations both costing too much in Hot Springs. Dr. Julius noted in his opening statement that costs “per unique patient” were higher at BHHCS than at any other system in his VISN.

“Can you tell me what those costs are?” Noem asked, “and if they were evaluated after services were removed from Hot Springs?”

Julius said that he didn’t have costs with him, but would make sure the numbers were forwarded to the committee.

Julius and DiStasio responded to several questions from the panel with the same answer, drawing the ire of both Miller and Noem.

“Any health care professional can tell you what costs are,” Miller admonished DiStasio and Julius. “For the record, I am requesting that you provide these numbers. And by provide, I mean that a week is fine but two years is unacceptable.”

Miller asked DiStasio about wait times at BHHCS, in the wake of recent VA issues, and following an internal VA audit of scheduling in VISN 23.

“For new primary care patients it is about 17 days,” DiStasio replied, “and for established patients it is three days,” drawing a rumble of dissent from the crowd, many of whom were veterans

Miller asked all of those in attendance who were established VA patients and who had appointments scheduled within three days to raise their hands. Many in the crowd broke into laughter.

“Turn around and look,” Miller told DiStasio. “There is only one person of 400 who has a hand up.”

The sharp questions directed toward DiStasio and Julius were, for the most part, attempts to confirm or refute information delivered to the committee by members of the first panel of witnesses.

Campbell drew the loudest applause of the hearing when she said she was asking for the replacement of the administration of BHHCS, including its director, immediately.

Jurgens said that the State American Legion had approved a measure in support of retaining the VA in Hot Springs and Zimmerman noted that in the past year, more than 1,200 patient transfers had been made from the State Veterans Home in Hot Springs to the VA.

"Where would those veterans go if the VA leaves?" Miller asked.

"Probably to Rapid City," admitted Zimerman.

Brewed testified that he believes there are as many as 3,500 veterans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a number that Noem pressed DiStasio about during his testimony.

“Your proposal in 2011 lists 1,370 veterans from Pine Ridge,” Noem said. “Why is there a difference? Have you reached out to them?”

DiStasio said he travels to the reservation a few times and has signed up one or two Native Americans each trip.

Miller informed the witnesses and those in the audience that his committee is attempting to partner with the VA to restore trust in the organization nationwide.

“But there is not going to be a honeymoon period,” he said. “There are 340,000 employees and a $150 billion budget.

“Veterans are sacred,” he said, “the VA is not.

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