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Manchin, Capito Rally Veterans Against VA Medical Center Cuts

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, left, and Edward "Ted" Diaz, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance, spoke with veterans about their concerns about the VA's AIR Report that recommends cutting services at VA medical centers in the state.

CHARLESTON – Veterans from around West Virginia joined U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito in denouncing recommendations by the U.S. Department of Veterans Assistance that could cut services at the state’s three VA medical centers.

Manchin, D-W.Va., and Capito, R-W.Va, participated in a tele-town hall with veterans Wednesday morning. They were joined by Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams and Edward “Ted” Diaz, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance.

Veterans participated in the town hall by phone. Other veterans participated by Zoom from locations across the state, including the Northern Panhandle, Charles Town, Clarksburg, Mason County, Logan, and Charleston.

Manchin and Capito – along with U.S. Senators Mike Rounds, R-S.D.; and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. – co-sponsored the Elimination of the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission Act, reintroducing the bill Monday. The bill was first introduced in 2019.

Manchin said the AIR Commission is similar to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process used by the Department of Defense when considering shuttering military bases.

“I knew, (Capito) knew we all had to stop this thing quickly,” Manchin said. “I only had one co-sponsor at that time when we started out … and (Capito has) been there fighting with us too. So, we were both deeply concerned that the AIR Commission was just a BRAC-like commission that would target rural states.”

The VA released its Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) report in March. The proposal involves closing as many as three medical centers and 174 outpatient clinics while also creating 255 new healthcare facilities focused on rehabilitation, long-term care, and other services aimed at older veterans.

As part of the AIR recommendations, Huntington and Clarksburg VA medical centers would stop offering inpatient medical and surgical services, instead partnering with local hospitals and healthcare facilities. The Huntington and Clarksburg VAMC’s emergency departments would convert to urgent care centers.

The AIR Report recommends constructing a new VA Medical Center to replace the Beckley VAMC, but the new facility would not offer the same inpatient medical and surgical services. Instead, the new Beckley VAMC would have a new community living center, adult day care, and offer non-surgical outpatient services.

“The recommendations … are going in the wrong direction, eliminating emergency services and eliminating surgeries, so we are fighting together to just eliminate this whole process,” Capito said. “It wasn’t well thought out. They didn’t talk to the stakeholders, in my opinion. They didn’t talk to our medical facilities outside of the VA either, which is another source of concern … We are going to fight our hardest.”

Diaz, who joined Manchin in person for the town hall, has been working hard to raise awareness about the AIR report since March. Diaz said if the recommendations are approved by the AIR Commission, President Joe Biden, and Congress, it would be devastating for veterans needing access to healthcare.

“It’s a reduction in services. It’s a reduction in healthcare access. It’s a reduction in mental healthcare access for our veterans in the state,” Diaz said. “Since then, I’ve been working with Governor (Jim) Justice, the Legislature, Senator Manchin, Senator Capito, and our congressional delegation in D.C. We are all united in making sure that the public is aware of what these recommendations mean, and we are also united in eliminating this.”

Williams, who received his Medal of Honor during his service in the U.S. Marine Corps in the World War II Pacific theater, recently spent several days in a VA medical center. Williams, 98, said local healthcare can’t offer the kinds of specialized services that veterans need.

“I couldn’t have received more perfect care if I’d been able to afford it,” Williams said. “They took such good care of me and the doctors were very considerate, very concerned, and very passionate about what they were doing. We have got to kill this thing somehow.”

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