House cancels funding for VA hospital closure commission in budget plan

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House lawmakers on Wednesday approved plans for a $300 billion budget plus Veterans Affairs with language barring any spending on the controversial Assets and Infrastructure Review Commission, the latest blow to efforts to shut down aging veterans hospitals across the country.

In a bipartisan 238-189 vote, lawmakers approved language that would shift $5 million in funding for overhaul plans to support programs for homeless veterans.

The move comes a month after top Senate leaders, including Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. — said they planned to stall the effort by refusing to confirm the nine nominees presented by the White House for the commission.

Officials from both chambers said they were not satisfied with medical facility realignment recommendations made by VA leaders earlier this year, which called for the closure or complete rebuilding of 35 veterans’ medical centers. in 21 different states as part of a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure overhaul. .

“Recommendations put forward so far through the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review process will lead to the closure or downsizing of nearly a third of VA medical facilities and outpatient clinics. communities of this country,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. ., chairman of the House Rules Committee and sponsor of the amendment, during a speech on the floor on Wednesday.

“I think this is unacceptable and frankly a rotten way to treat veterans who have put their lives on the line for this country. This whole process is a back door way to cut services for veterans.

VA officials said they have nearly 1,000 non-vacant but underutilized facilities spread across the country, creating a significant drain on department resources. Closing many of them would require an act of Congress.

It was supposed to be the work of the AIR Commission, approved by lawmakers in 2018 to mimic the process of realigning and closing Department of Defense bases.

Following recommendations from the VA secretary for facility changes, the nine-member commission was to spend a year analyzing the moves and meeting with local officials to offer its own recommendations to the White House.

The language included in the House bill approved Wednesday will only become law after lengthy budget negotiations with senators in the coming months, but it serves as another indicator that the commission will not be able to meet its Spring 2023 timeline for this White House report. .

In passing the amendment removing funding for the commission, 43 Republicans joined 195 Democrats. Only 27 Democrats joined 164 Republicans in opposing the plan.

Several conservative leaders have denounced the end of the AIR effort in recent weeks, saying it leaves VA with an outdated and bloated infrastructure.

“This process is vital to the future of modern, state-of-the-art VA care,” Mike Bost, R-Ill., member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement late. of last month. “[Abandoning the commission] does an immense disservice to veterans and VA personnel who will feel its repercussions for years to come.

At a press conference with reporters on Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said efforts to improve the department’s infrastructure would continue despite the commission’s setbacks.

“We will continue to update [local] ratings,” he said. “This will then inform our plans to modernize internal infrastructure, and we will continue this work on our own.”

The VA budget plan — the largest in the department’s history — was approved by a largely partisan 220-207 vote as part of a more than $400 billion package that also included planned spending for the fiscal year 2023 for the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Agriculture.

Senate leaders have yet to announce when they plan to vote on their draft VA appropriations plans for the next fiscal year.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.

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