HELENA — Earlier this year, a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs laid out sweeping proposals for changes to VA health care facilities – including closing some clinics in Montana. Now, though, it appears those recommendations aren’t going anywhere, due to opposition in Congress.
Twelve U.S. senators, including Montana’s Jon Tester and Steve Daines, released a statement last week, vowing not to approve any members to the Asset and Infrastructure Review, or AIR, Commission, that was set to consider the recommendations – essentially stopping the process from moving forward.
“As Senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that upholds our obligations to America’s veterans,” the statement said. “We believe the recommendations put forth to the AIR Commission are not reflective of that goal, and would put veterans in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage, which is why we are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move forward. The Commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure, and together we remain dedicated to providing the Department with the resources and tools it needs to continue delivering quality care and earned services to veterans in 21st century facilities—now and into the future.”
The review process began as part of the VA MISSION Act, which passed with bipartisan support in 2018. In March, the Department released its Asset and Infrastructure Review report, with recommendations for how the VA system could be updated to keep it ready to serve veterans in the future.
In Montana, the report recommended closing four VA locations: rural clinics in Browning, Glasgow and Plentywood, as well as the Miles City Community Living Center, a nursing home. Veterans and advocacy groups raised concerns about the proposals, and Montana VA leaders stressed that they were only recommendations.
Tester, who chairs the U.S. Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the recommendations were different than what he was hoping to see out of the process.
“We’ve heard from veterans from all over the country and veterans service organizations that have told us time and time again that this is a flawed process,” he said.
Daines and Tester both said the proposals – for Montana and the rest of the country – were outdated, based on questionable data and especially bad for rural veterans.
The AIR Commission was set to begin reviewing the proposals this year, then make its own recommendations to President Joe Biden. Biden named his nominees to the commission, but they also need the approval of the Senate. If the Senate doesn’t confirm anyone, the process – and the recommendations – can’t move forward.
“The AIR Commission as it stands today would make VA infrastructure decisions on old, faulty data that would disadvantage Montanans and rural veterans around the country,” Daines said in a statement. “We must ensure any such Commission honors the commitment to provide quality care to our Montana veterans, and until then, I cannot and will not support it. I’m committed to ensuring veterans in every corner of our state have access to the care and services they need.”
Tester said it is important to make sure the VA’s facilities are aligned with its mission and the needs of the people it serves.
“The review needs to happen all the time, every day,” he said. “What Congress needs to do is give the VA the tools and the appropriations needed to be able to fix problems when they arise and not have to go through a bunch of red tape.”
He said the Montana VA has shown how that can be done – asking for and successfully launching new clinics in areas where they’re needed. Eight new facilities have opened in the state over the last three years.
In the end, Tester said Congress needs to take the responsibility for veterans’ facilities on themselves.
“The facilities are out there,” he said. “If the facilities aren’t up to snuff, then Congress needs to sit down and say, ‘Hey, look, if we’re gonna send folks off to war, we’ve gotta take care of them when they get home, and if we’re not willing to take care of them when they get home, then we shouldn’t be sending them off to war.’ And that’s what I would tell the veterans out there: we’re listening to you, and we’re reacting to what you’re saying.”
Tester said the PACT Act, a bill expanding coverage for veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, also includes provisions to assist the VA with infrastructure. In addition, he’s currently working on another bill to support those projects.