By Autumn Shelton, WV Press News Sharing
CHARLESTON, W.Va – Following news that three West Virginia VA medical centers could face possible healthcare service reductions, WV Department of Veterans Assistance Cabinet Secretary Edward Diaz was invited to speak before members of the state legislative Select Committee on Veterans’ Affairs during their April interim meeting about what this will mean for veterans throughout the state.
According to Diaz, the three facilities facing these service reductions include the Beckley VA Medical Center, the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington and the Louis A Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg.
He explained that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently conducted a study on nationwide healthcare assets. The study identified gaps in care, areas that need improvement and identified facilities that need to be closed. At the study’s completion, the VA made recommendations to the Asset and Infrastructure (AIR) Commission that these three WV facilities should face service reductions, including the elimination of inpatient mental health care, inpatient and outpatient surgeries and emergency room services. Additionally, community based outpatient clinics in Parsons and Franklin would be closed.
Once the service reductions and closures occur, “the balance of care would be reliant upon rural hospitals located throughout the state and the providers within those communities,” Diaz continued, adding that state VA medical centers were between 81-90% of their capacity in the last quarter of 2021.
“Our concerns are with the ability of the non-VA facilities to address the unique veteran situation,” Diaz said. “Veterans have a unique need of care, whether it be traumatic injuries incurred in battle, or mental health issues from the mental injuries that have been inflicted through years of war.”
Diaz then cited a study, completed in 2014, which stated that only 13% of mental health providers were able to provide the mental healthcare that veterans require. The study also showed that only 35% of psychotherapists were trained in evidence-based care for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He further explained that one of the missions of the VA, in addition to providing healthcare for veterans, is to provide community support, as was witnessed with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The recommendations would result in the loss of 258 hospital beds for the state of West Virginia,” Diaz noted.
He said that he has discussed the issue with members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Congresswoman Carol Miller. Through those discussions, he learned that several nominees to the AIR commission have not yet been confirmed due to possible bias and previous work. Once the nominees are in place, though, they have until January 2023 to either accept the current recommendations, or devise a new plan. Then, U.S. President Joe Biden may either agree with the recommendations or dismiss them summarily. This must take place by March 2023. VA clinics will then have an estimated 4-10 years to enact the new plan.
Diaz said he recommended that the plan “be eliminated now.”
State VA Committee Chair, Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, asked Diaz if the new VA hospital slated to be built in Beckley would still take place.
Diaz responded that part of the plan is to build the new hospital in Beckley. However, “there will be no surgical capabilities, no inpatient capabilities, no ICU, no intense inpatient medical or mental health capabilities” at the facility.
“In my opinion, it will be nothing more than a supersized community based outpatient clinic,” Diaz said. “But, no outpatient surgeries.”
Multiple committee members then asked what could be done to save the three VA clinics. Several ideas were discussed, but Diaz said the best plan is to ensure that veterans are utilizing the state’s VA clinics.
“Roughly 50% of the state’s 144,000 veterans are enrolled in VA healthcare,” Diaz said. “We are doing everything we can to recruit as many people into the VA healthcare system as we can. However, it’s up to everyone to ensure that our veterans are being taken care of.”
He noted that the importance of VA clinics is getting ready to be realized because he anticipates a large number of OEF/OIF veterans will need service following exposure to burn pit toxins.
“There will be many more healthcare issues that this country is going to need to address,” Diaz said.
Following discussion, the committee made a motion to draft a resolution opposing the healthcare service reductions in the state’s VA facilities. Once drafted, it will be forwarded to the state’s congressional delegation as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs. The topic will be discussed further during their May interim meeting.