CHARLESTON — West Virginia lawmakers voted Monday to draft a resolution to show opposition to Veterans Affairs hospital cutbacks recommended in a recently released federal report.
The motion to draft the resolution passed Monday during a meeting of the Interim Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, after testimony from West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance Cabinet Secretary Ted Diaz, a retired U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman.
The lawmakers and Diaz encouraged anyone with military experience to look into veterans affairs resources near them to find out for what medical services they might qualify, as a way to boost the number of veterans — about half — using the services to show the services are an asset to the community.
Diaz’s testimony came after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released its Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) last month with recommendations to “modernize facilities and realign priorities” as a result of Congress passing the VA Mission ACT in 2018.
The report proposes major cutbacks to Appalachian health care. The West Virginia facilities affected would include the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington, the Beckley VA Medical Center and the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, along with smaller facilities across the state.
It recommends at three of the four medical centers in West Virginia discontinue inpatient medical, surgical and emergency medical services, among more minor recommendations. A medical center in Chillicothe, Ohio, is also recommended to close, which could cause an uptick in people from southern Ohio enrolling at the Huntington facility.
Diaz said it would result in the loss of 258 hospital beds in the state.
Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, asked what the hospitals would be if not offering those services.
“In my opinion. It will be nothing more than a supersized shell community. Community-based outpatient clinic,” Diaz said.
Those services for about 71,000 veterans enrolled in the VA health care system would be divided among other health care providers in the community. Veterans could have to travel as far away as Connecticut — for specific care needs.
“Our concerns are with the ability of non VA facilities to address the unique veteran situation,” Diaz said. “Veterans have a unique need for care.”
He said average wait time for community appointments can be weeks or months, but West Virginia VAMCs average one to two weeks.
He said a 2014 study by RAND corporation showed only 13% of mental health providers and 35% of psychotherapists were trained to address the mental health services veterans need.
Diaz said in the last quarter of 2021, West Virginia Medical Centers used its services between 81% and 90%, meaning they were at full capacity.
“This is outstanding for any VA Medical Center,” he said. “And to have that kind of capability within a rural state such as West Virginia — it’s amazing.”
He added many of the studies were done during the COVID-19 pandemic when fewer people were going to hospitals for issues unrelated to Coronavirus.
Delegate Ric Griffith, D-Wayne, asked if a smaller percentage of veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were enrolling compared to other wars. Diaz was unsure, but said Congress is currently looking at a bill on burn pit-related illnesses among people who fought in the Middle East that will expand the number of veterans able to be enrolled.
Diaz warned that cutting back services could have major effects on the future for those veterans who no one is sure what medical issues will arise as they age.
“There will be many more health care issues that this country is going to need to address because of the presumptive diagnosis that are going to be coming about from burn pits,” he said.
If the recommendations are approved first by a congressional panel next year, and later the President of the United States, Diaz thinks it could be four to 10 years before the plan is put into place.
Diaz and others have been in close contact with the state’s federal delegation to state their opinions on the report. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has been opposed to the report and recommendations since 2018. U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has also shown concern.
“The recommendation review process is in its early stages, but I am committed to ensuring that the AIR Commission carefully reviews the recommendations and holds public meetings to hear from our veterans,” she said. “In the meantime, I will continue efforts to ensure our West Virginia veterans are taken care of.”
Diaz admitted West Virginia has a declining VA enrollment and population, adding about half of the roughly 144,000 veterans in the state are enrolled in VA health care. Those who aren’t enrolled might not qualify for the services, but Diaz said oftentimes it’s because they are unaware they are eligible for benefits.
The state has service officers at 15 offices throughout the state to help connect veterans to benefits, but averages about one officer per 5,000 veterans.
“We do well and we’re very good stewards with our taxpayers’ dollars,” he said. “However, it’s up to everyone to make sure that our veterans are being taken care of.”
Fleischauer worried cutbacks would isolate veterans in rural areas more, asking if the report accounted for the different dynamics between a rural and metropolitan area.
“We have this culture that makes it negative to talk about our pain and our guilt and our injuries and our mental health generally,” she said. “And that is probably even worse for people that are in rural areas because of the isolation and the lack of transportation and just so many other things.”
Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, suggested the resolution decrying the recommendations, which could be passed at the next expected special session of the Legislature. Others on the committee suggested running an advertising campaign to let veterans know about the services they might qualify for, as well as the proposed cutbacks, to increase enrollment numbers.