NORTHAMPTON — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Monday announced the effective termination of the federal commission that had proposed the closure of veterans’ facilities, including the VA Medical Center in Northampton.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and 11 other senators have announced plans to dismantle the Federal Assets and Infrastructure Review Commission (AIR), which was tasked with review the AV’s list of recommended closures. and other changes to VA medical care. This list was released earlier this year and included the 105-acre VA campus in Leeds.
“As senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that meets our obligations to American veterans,” the senators said in their statement. “We believe that the recommendations presented to the AIR Commission do not reflect this objective and would disadvantage rural and urban veterans, which is why we are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move. forward.”
In 2018, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the VA MISSION Act, which required the VA to come up with a list of recommendations to “modernize” its medical facilities and health care delivery. This meant privatizing some services and closing three facilities: those in Northampton, Brooklyn, NY, and Chillicothe, Ohio.
But the process provided for in the VA MISSION law specified that these recommendations were to be considered by the AIR Commission, whose members would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The commission would then report its findings to the president, who could present them to Congress for a vote.
“Without Senate approval of nominees, no commission will be established and the process outlined by the VA MISSION Act will not move forward,” the bipartisan group of senators said.
In a statement on Monday, U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, praised the senators for their work to end an “unfair and arbitrary process.” McGovern and U.S. Representative Richard Neal, D-Springfield, had advocated for the Leeds facility to remain open, and McGovern said he would continue to do what he could to ‘block any legislative attempt to close the Leeds VA and take care of our veterans.
“This announcement is a tremendous relief to the thousands of veterans in Western and Central Massachusetts who rely on Leeds VA for high quality medical care,” McGovern said. “This whole ordeal has created anxiety and distress for veterans and their loved ones across our community – and I sincerely hope that this good news will allow them to rest a little easier tonight knowing that the commission and recommended closures will not move forward.”
In late March, other local elected officials, veterans, VA staff, nurses and other supporters rallied on the Leeds campus to oppose the proposed closure.
“We all know how devastating this would be for our communities and especially our veterinarians,” Rudy Renaud, an organizer with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said at the time. “Why do we always, always hurt those who help us the most, and we always hurt the most vulnerable?”
On Monday, the union representing VA workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, applauded the move, although the union said “the fight against the privatization of VA health care is not over.”
“This closing commission was a bad idea from the start,” AFGE said. “Automatic, mass closures of VA facilities would deprive veterans of the comprehensive, quality care our nation owes to those who have defended our country — an obligation first recognized by President Abraham Lincoln.”
In addition to Tester, members of the bipartisan group of senators are Joe Manchin, DW.Va., Mike Rounds, RS.D., Martin Heinrich, DN.M., Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., Maggie Hassan, DN .H., John Thune, RS.D., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Patty Murray, D-Wash., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Ben Ray Luján, DN.M., and Rob Portman, R- Ohio.
Dusty Christensen can be contacted at [email protected]