A report slated for release Monday will recommend the closure of the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center to better meet “future demand for health care services among the veteran population.”
Details will be released when the Assets and Infrastructure Review Commission, authorized by Congress in 2018 to assess VA health care facilities, publishes its report in the Federal Register. The recommendations included in the report seek “to invest in the most significant overhaul of the VA health care system since the era of World War II.”
Employees and others who attended a recent briefing but wished to remain anonymous so they could speak freely about the report said previously announced plans to move the facility’s primary mission from Muskogee to Tulsa remain in play. AIR Commission, however, will recommend shelving previous plans to convert the Muskogee facility into a behavioral health center.
Nita McClellan, director of communications for Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System, confirmed the March 2 briefing conducted by Paul Gregory, acting director of EOVAHCS. She declined to share details, saying only that no decision or announcement had been made regarding the closure of VA facilities anywhere.
“VA was required by law under the VA MISSION Act of 2018 to conduct a series of market assessments to examine future demand for health care services among the veteran population, which is expected to change in size and location over the next decade,” said McClellan. . “As part of this process, VA is to submit its findings and recommendations to an independent commission called the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, which would review and assess the findings and make its own recommendations to the President in early 2023.”
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis R. McDonough said Thursday in an online chat with stakeholders that “the recommendations, if approved, will add to the one thing that matters most: more care. and better care for the veterinarians we serve.” He said the recommendations are based on market assessments, studies of VA facilities, local partnerships and the composition of the veteran population based on health care needs, age, race, sex, time of service and place of residence.
McDonough said he understands those who might be concerned about the prospect of future changes. To address these concerns, a coordinated effort was made to communicate with VA employees, union members, VA partners, veterans and service organizations prior to the release of the report.
“I also want to say now to anyone worried about the process that VA is here to stay,” McDonough said. “This is an investment in VA, not a retirement; we are doubling and strengthening our ability to provide world-class healthcare.”
McDonough said that in markets where changes have been recommended, health care infrastructure will be built to meet changing veteran care needs. When new infrastructure is in place and there is no longer a need for the old medical center, he said, closure will be recommended “so that we can focus on investing in new facilities. rather than pouring limited dollars into a facility that opened just after World War I.”
Mayor Marlon Coleman expressed concern about the possibility of a disconnect between the data used to make the recommendations and the actual health care needs of veterans.
“It is unfortunate that the data collected by a third-party vendor for the Department of Veterans Affairs does not reflect the needs of our nation’s veterans,” Coleman said. “The good news is that the National Director of Veterans Affairs can only approve the recommendations, which must now be approved by the American public and the United States Congress.”
Coleman said veterans have historically “chosen to live in more rural areas,” communities like Muskogee. He attributed the trend to a low cost of living and easy access to veterans’ health care.
“The results of this study are disconnected from the needs of veterans, and I hope Congress will vote against this plan and honor the needs of our veterans who have stood up for American freedom and democracy.”
VA resources say that once the report is released, the AIR Commission will begin holding public hearings, tour VA facilities, meet with VA employees and partners — and get input from veterans. The members of the AIR Commission will evaluate the recommendations, make any changes they deem necessary and forward them to the President.
McDonough said Thursday that the president will decide whether to take the recommendations to Congress, which can accept those recommendations as a whole through inaction or reject them through a joint resolution. If the recommendations are approved, the VA must begin implementation within three years — turnaround times will vary by market based on priorities and funding.
McClellan said veterans will always be central to the VA’s mission to provide health care. The commission’s work, she said, provides an “opportunity to redesign VA health care to maximize access and outcomes for current and future generations of veterans.”
“It is important to note that all recommendations to the next AIR Commission are just that – recommendations,” McClellan said. “Nothing changes now for veterans’ access to care or VA employees.”
McClellan said the potential for any changes to VA’s health care infrastructure could be years away and depend on the decisions of the Commission, the President and Congress, as well as the strong commitment and planning of the stakeholders.