US senators block commission that would have closed New Mexico VA clinics

Union says the move is a ‘major victory’ for people who rely on the VA and for workers

By: - June 29, 2022 4:30 am

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and staff met with veterans inside the inside the American Legion Post 17 building in downtown Española. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Federal lawmakers say they’ve killed a plan by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to shutter four VA clinics in New Mexico.

The Gallup, Las Vegas, Raton and Española clinics would have been closed under recommendations released in March.

A 2018 law passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump requires VA plans to go to the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission.

But a dozen senators announced on Monday that they will not approve the commission’s creation in the first place.

President Joe Biden nominated eight people to serve on the AIR Commission in March. But the law requires the Senate to approve those nominations.

In a written statement, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) said the lawmakers’ pulling their support for the nominations is “effectively abolishing the commission and ending the conversation on clinic closures.”

“This process does not have our support and will not move forward,” the lawmakers wrote. “Without the Senate’s approval of the nominees, no commission will be established,” and the process outlined by the 2018 law will not move forward.

Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, applauded the senators’ move and said the VA’s plan could have closed and privatized a lot of the VA health care system.

“Today’s announcement by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is a major victory for veterans, military families, the American health care system, VA employees, and all those who rely on the VA,” Kelley said in a news release. “This closure commission was a bad idea from the start. Automatic, mass closures of VA facilities would deny veterans the comprehensive, quality care that our nation owes to those who have defended our country.”

The closure recommendations appear to focus on VA facilities that are unused, aging or in disrepair, but according to congressional records, the intent of the 2018 law that created the commission was not to close VA clinics in areas where there are no other health care facilities available.

James Sullivan, director of the Office of Asset Enterprise Management at the VA, testified in July 2017 that most VA facilities are old and in need of repairs or replacement.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee wrote that the AIR Commission should “consider the unique ability of the federal government to retain a presence in a rural area otherwise devoid of commercial health care providers or from which such providers are at risk of leaving.”

While there are 13 clinics scattered throughout New Mexico, more serious conditions can only be treated at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque.

For decades, volunteers with Disabled American Veterans have been driving hundreds of thousands of miles to bring fellow veterans from rural counties like Rio Arriba and Taos to the medical center in the metropolitan area. They’ve struggled in the past to replace the vehicles they use.

Veterans in Española, about a 35-minute drive north of the state capital in Santa Fe, said in March that if their local VA clinic were to close, child care needs, travel costs and a lack of internet access would become barriers to their health care.

Luján and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) argued in March that the VA’s report doesn’t account for severe health care shortages in the state. They wrote that the recommendations “fail to fully account for the projected veteran demand, community care network inadequacy, and lack of access to telehealth services.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.