By PHIL SCHERER, Las Vegas Optics
LAS VEGAS, NM (AP) — More than a month after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommended the closure of four VA clinics in New Mexico, including the one in Las Vegas, Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, as well as Rep. Teresa Léger Fernandez, were in town to speak to local veterans as they fight to keep them open.
On March 14, the VA announced recommendations, after years of analysis, that would lead to the closure of community outreach clinics in Las Vegas, Española, Raton and Gallup, forcing veterans in those areas to seek treatment elsewhere. , in particular at the Raymond. G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, nearly a two-hour drive from the current clinic in Las Vegas. In total, 174 local clinics in all 50 states have been recommended to close.
Although the process of actually implementing these recommendations, and potentially closing local clinics, is long, potentially taking years, lawmakers waste no time getting in front of veterans and letting them tell their stories. in the hope that personal accounts will influence the VA.
“Don’t feel like you have to convince me that it needs to stay open,” Heinrich said Tuesday as he addressed a roomful of veterans at the Las Vegas VFW Post 1547. “What I need of you is to arm myself with the stories of what it’s like to live in a community and need help where you are, and why it’s unreasonable to have to drive all the way to Albuquerque .
More than 50 veterans attended at least one of the two meetings with the senators this week. Las Vegas optics reported. Many of them shared stories and detailed how losing access to their local clinic would affect them. Among those most present at Heinrich’s event was Bob Phillips, who spoke at length about the challenges he would face.
Phillips, who suffers from a variety of back and knee issues, said regularly traveling the long distance to Albuquerque wouldn’t do anything to improve his current situation.
“Driving in Albuquerque is not comfortable,” Phillips said. “And the older you get, the harder it gets.”
He also said he believes, based on that decision as well as many of his personal experiences, that veterans like him are not considered a health care priority.
“The feeling I have is, why are veterans at the bottom of the healthcare system?” Phillips said. “I served my country, I paid my taxes and I have to fight like hell to get health care.”
The VA made its recommendations earlier this year based on the decline that local VA clinics in rural New Mexico have experienced over the past five years. That includes a 55% drop in the number of unique patients at the Las Vegas clinic, with a larger drop expected over the next decade, according to the VA’s recommendation.
However, Heinrich believes the statistics used in the report do not reflect current reality, as many of the figures used are from 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Luján, during his meeting with veterans at Highland University of New Mexico, said Wednesday that across New Mexico, 32 of the state’s 33 counties are facing health worker shortages, making it more difficult for individuals, especially veterans, to access the care they need. .
“It doesn’t seem to me that we should close access to care even more,” Luján said.
Heinrich, Luján, and Leger Fernandez wrote a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough last week, inviting him to visit New Mexico and meet with veterans himself to better understand the importance of these clinics for people living in rural areas.
In the letter, state officials ask the VA to reconsider its recommendations because of the impact the decision would have on rural veterans’ access to health care, due to displacement and increased wait times of all New Mexico veterans forced into a centralized location. .
Officials also said the decision did not take into account the increased shortage of healthcare workers caused by the pandemic and how the lack of broadband access, especially in rural areas, would prevent telemedicine from taking off. be as realistic as it could be elsewhere.
All VA recommendations must be approved by an AIR commission, appointed by President Joe Biden. The president is responsible for appointing people to the commission, all of whom must be approved by the Senate. Recommendations must also be approved by the President and Congress.
Heinrich stressed that they are only at the beginning of a process of several years and that nothing has been officially decided. But he told veterans he met that he would continue to fight to keep the clinic open for as long as it takes.
Luján detailed the process that will take place. By January 31, 2023, the commission must rule on the recommendations. The recommendations will then go to the president, then to Congress, which will have the final say. Even if approved by Congress, it would take several years for everything to be finalized, according to Luján.
“Nothing happens today, tomorrow or next week, but we want to make sure we keep going,” Luján said.
Phillips said keeping the clinic alive is important to him, to himself, but especially to those who come after him – veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom do not yet seek frequent care from the clinic. VA, but probably will be in the years to come.
“None of us here want to see this up close because he has to be there for the next generation of veterans coming in,” Phillips said. “I believe that anyone who gives their life to serve and protect this country deserves, and has earned the right, to be cared for.”
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