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Veterans’ lives are at risk, and the VA workers who have dedicated their careers to caring for our nation’s heroes are fighting back.

Last month, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough released a series of recommendations that, if enacted, would slash vast portions of the VA health care system in West Virginia and nationwide. The recommendations, born out of a provision in the 2018 MISSION Act, would deny veterans their preferred choice in health care providers and force them into for-profit private care. The MISSION Act established an Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission with the power to recommend mass closures of VA facilities using a legal mechanism that makes the recommendations hard to challenge.

In short, the recommended closures could negatively impact veteran care, cause economic hardship in affected communities and strip countless VA workers of their jobs. The closures would be especially catastrophic in West Virginia, where we have over 68,000 veterans enrolled in local care and thousands of workers — a third of whom are veterans themselves — who have dedicated their careers to the VA.

As a U.S. combat veteran and member of AFGE Local 2384 that proudly represents the VA workers in Clarksburg, West Virginia, I’m urging members of Congress to eliminate the AIR Commission altogether by refusing to confirm its members and repealing the section of law that created it.

To say the VA plays a vital role in health care for West Virginia is an understatement. In our state, rural civilian hospitals are closing, and those that haven’t are struggling to stay afloat. To think that we can eliminate vital VA services and place that burden on those facilities is irresponsible and dangerous.

We know from experience veterans have more complex health needs than the general public, based on the injuries suffered and conditions they were exposed to in service. They benefit from the integrated, expert care that only VA can provide. A recent Stanford University study found the survival rates for veterans treated at VA hospitals were 46% better than at non-VA hospitals and costs were 21% less.

Despite these facts, the VA’s recommendations call for an end to VA emergency care services across West Virginia. If passed, they could shutter the ER in Huntington VAMC and the Clarksburg emergency department, ceasing inpatient medical and surgical services at both locations. What’s more, the Beckley VAMC could be completely shut down and replaced with a new privatized center that would lack inpatient and outpatient surgery — or replaced with nothing if Congress fails to appropriate new money.

In some rural areas of West Virginia, the veteran population is 80%, compared to 32% nationally. Travel between clinic sites is difficult even in the best conditions, as many veterans are older and require rapid treatment. The VA makes no allowance for this in its recommendations. Certain veterans would have to travel as far as northern Ohio or even Connecticut to get specialized care under the VA’s plans for our state. As a veteran who receives care from a local VA myself, I find this deeply troubling.

On top of the devastation these closures and privatization would cause, the AIR Commission process is fatally flawed because the VA’s recommendations are based almost entirely on pre-COVID data.. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office looked at the VA’s market data for the AIR process and found it lacks reliable data on the cost, availability and quality of care in all private sector markets.

We need to stop the AIR Commission and start a new process that meaningfully focuses on investing in our veterans, their health and the people who have devoted their lives to taking care of them. If Congress fails to mount a vote to disapprove the AIR report by joint resolution, the closures will go into effect within three years.

In 2019, West Virginia’s own Sen. Joe Manchin joined Sen. Mike Rounds in introducing S. 853 — the Elimination of the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission Act — to repeal most of Title 2 of the MISSION Act and abolish the AIR Commission. That’s the right approach, and we hope to see Manchin re-introduce this Bill.

I’m joining veterans and AFGE members nationwide in calling on President Biden and members of Congress to refuse to confirm any members to the AIR Commission and put veteran care first by avoiding this process altogether.

As veterans and VA workers, we understand the VA needs investment and modernization, but the AIR Commission is a disaster in West Virginia and around the country. We need funding, not closures, in order to respect veterans, protect their health care and save their committed staff.

Bryan Hunt is vice president and legislative/political coordinator for AFGE Local 2384, Louis A. Johnson VAMC in Clarksburg. He is a U.S. Army combat veteran and has worked at the Clarksburg VA for 15 years.

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