House VA Committee Considers Veterans’ Health Infrastructure Needs

By Maria Cristina Castro and Leslie Haymon

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs met on October 12 to discuss draft legislation that would reassess and potentially close Veterans Health Administration facilities. The Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Act of 2017 requires the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, to review its assets and infrastructure, like hospitals and clinics, and establish a plan that would realign and improve the current Veterans Health Administration, or VHA.

Many VHA facilities throughout the country are rapidly deteriorating, leaving some veterans without accessible care. The VA currently operates a number facilities to provide health care for veterans. However, many of these facilities have exceeded their functional lifecycle, becoming both unmanageable and unavailable to provide the care and treatment veterans deserve. Likewise, changes to the veteran population has left many areas underserved.

The result of this inefficiency and lack of services is many retired servicemen and women have been forced to seek care through private health care providers and insurance. They do so because they cannot seek care safely within VA facilities.

The draft bill, sponsored by Chairman Phil Roe of Tennessee and Ranking Member Tim Walz of Minnesota, would establish a commission to review the Department’s current holdings and develop a report recommending how to modernize and realign VA medical facilities. This commission would be similar to the Department of Defense’s Base Closure and Realignment process.

According to the sponsors, it is necessary to address the different facilities the Department possesses, because is not cost effective for VA to maintain infrastructure that is not useful for the department’s current needs. 

While the witnesses expressed a general level of support for such a realignment, some veterans’ service organizations have expressed doubt and concern about the feasibility of a BRAC-like process at the VA. The organizations explained that although both involve changes to physical infrastructure, there are significant cultural and logistical differences between the departments and the populations they serve.

American Legion stated that commission may not be necessary because the VA Secretary has sufficient authority to reorganize any facility of the Department without any assistance.

While the intention is to improve the delivery of high quality care for those who serve, there are still some concerns to be addressed. The draft does not address how the department would dispose of realigned or closed assets, relocation of workforce at such facilities, or how the department would use the funding freed up by closure of hospitals and clinics.

As Joy Ilem of the Disabled American Veterans noted in her testimony, when a military facility closes, it can lead to negative economic impacts on local communities. These communities receive direct and indirect benefits from the various commercial activities generated by the military facility.

Similar effects may accrue if VA facilities are closed or realigned. Closures may also effect, both directly and indirectly, the local veteran population who may lose access to resources in their community. Already many veterans must travel significant distances for care, a problem that could be exacerbated by this plan.

Chairman Roe has indicated that this legislation will undergo continued refinement before introduction. The current draft legislation can be found here.