Sweeping changes to VA medical facilities across America on hold due to missing candidate

The Veterans Assets and Infrastructure Review Board has just eight months to finalize its report on the fate of hundreds of hospital and clinic closures across the country, recommendations that could reshape veterans’ care. veterans in America for decades to come.

But they haven’t even started their work.

The commission — designed to be an independent arbiter reviewing where new VA medical centers should be built and aging ones closed — was originally scheduled to begin meetings and site visits in February, under legislation passed by Congress in 2018. .

However, this cannot happen until the nine members of the commission are appointed and confirmed. Eight of them — including former Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, who will serve as president — were announced by the White House in early March.

The ninth has not yet been selected.

The delay has caused angst among lawmakers and veterans groups who fear the commission won’t have enough time to wade through the huge volume of market data, departmental operational files and necessary onsite interviews. to determine the best way to deploy VA healthcare assets for years to come. .

The potential closure of dozens of VA medical centers, the construction of dozens more, or absolutely nothing if the commission’s work is not completed in time, are at stake.

On Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged frustration with the panel’s delays, saying his department was doing what it could to prepare information for the panel once it was established.

“If there is no commissioner, there is still a law,” he said. “We still have those needs, so we’ll look at what our options are there.”

In March, McDonough unveiled formal VA recommendations to the commission, which included closing or completely rebuilding 35 major VA medical centers in 21 states and nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure spending.

The recommendations were immediately condemned by union officials, who expressed concerns about disruptions to patient care and staffing levels. Conservative supporters were also unhappy, who noted that the review was originally designed with the idea of ​​closing more sites and allowing veterans to seek more care in the private sector.

The commission is expected to thoroughly revise McDonough’s list, which the secretary said he would welcome. Senior VA executives expressed concern that the review — mandated by Congress — relied too heavily on outdated information about health care options in communities across the country, which have changed dramatically due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But that commission work won’t begin until the ninth panel member is named.

The eight nominees already announced include representatives from veterans groups and health care experts, as well as picks from the White House, House Republican leaders and House and Senate Democratic leaders.

Congressional officials confirmed that the missing nomination was reserved for senior Senate Republicans. A source familiar with the process said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sent his pick to the White House in March, but no public announcement has yet been made.

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on the commission. VA officials deferred questions about White House nominations.

Complications from the pandemic delayed the mandatory release of McDonough’s recommendations by nearly two months. But the legislation that established the AIR Commission still requires that the panel’s final report be written by January 31, 2023, and that the White House approve or reject the recommendations by February 15.

McDonough has repeatedly warned that any infrastructure decisions made by senior leaders or the commission will likely take years to implement, and that patients and staff should not worry about short-term changes in their facilities.

“We will continue to communicate with the workforce and with our veterans to make sure everyone understands precisely the decisions we will be making,” he said. “None of these decisions will be made behind closed doors.”

For the time being, the commission’s review work is also not taking place behind closed doors. Senate and VA officials said they did not have a timeline for announcing the final nomination.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.

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