Sen. Heller Asks for Answers on Possible VA Facility Closures - KTVN Channel 2 - Reno Tahoe Sparks News, Weather, Video

Sen. Heller Asks for Answers on Possible VA Facility Closures

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U.S. Senator Dean Heller is asking the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to clarify how its proposed facility closures would affect the state of Nevada. It is reported that the VA may be seeking to close 1,100 VA facilities nationwide. 

Earlier this week, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin says his department is seeking to close perhaps more than 1,100 VA facilities nationwide as it develops plans to allow more veterans to receive medical care in the private sector.

At a House hearing Wednesday, Shulkin said the VA had identified more than 430 vacant buildings and 735 that he described as underutilized, costing the federal government $25 million a year. He said the VA would work with Congress in prioritizing buildings for closure and was considering whether to follow a process the Pentagon had used in recent decades to decide which of its underused military bases to shutter, known as Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC.

"Whether BRAC is a model that we should take a look, we're beginning that discussion with members of Congress," Shulkin told a House appropriations subcommittee. "We want to stop supporting our use of maintenance of buildings we don't need, and we want to reinvest that in buildings we know have capital needs."

In an internal agency document obtained by The Associated Press, the VA pointed to aging buildings it was reviewing for possible closure that would cost millions of dollars to replace. It noted that about 57% of all VA facilities were more than 50 years old. Of the 431 VA buildings it said were vacant, most were built 90 or more years ago, according to agency data. The VA document did not specify the locations.

While President Donald Trump's budget blueprint calls for a 6 percent increase in VA funding, Shulkin has made clear the government's second-largest agency with nearly 370,000 employees will have to operate more efficiently and that budget increases should not be considered a given in future years. The department recently announced hiring restrictions on roughly 4,000 positions despite the lifting of the federal hiring freeze and also left open the possibility of "near-term" and "long-term workforce reductions." Shulkin is also putting together a broader proposal by fall to expand the VA's Choice program of private-sector care.

The Pentagon's BRAC process often stirred controversy in the past as members of Congress expressed concern about the negative economic impact of shuttering military bases and vigorously opposed closures in their districts.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., a vice chair of the appropriations panel, told Shulkin that Congress was looking forward to working with the VA "constructively" on the issue in part by determining how excess VA buildings could be put to good community use, such as for fire-fighting, security or landscape maintenance.

"Don't ever use the term BRAC because it brings up a lot of bad memories," Fortenberry cautioned. "You automatically set yourself up for a lot of controversy."

Here is the text of Senator Heller's letter to Secretary Shulkin - 

The letter reads in full: 
The Honorable David Shulkin
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shulkin:
As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the senior Senator representing Nevada’s veterans, I am writing regarding your comments at a hearing that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may seek to close 1,100 VA facilities nationwide.  Given the importance of the VA services and care provided to veterans in Nevada, I want to ensure that Nevada’s veterans are protected and that Congress approves any closures that will impact existing services.
Like you, I recognize the importance of utilizing resources effectively so that Nevada’s veterans receive high-quality care and benefits from the VA.  While I understand your desire to consolidate the hundreds of vacant VA buildings so those resources can be directed toward the needs of veterans, Congress should have a role in this process, primarily when considering the more than 700 other VA buildings that are still being utilized.  I have concerns with the potential closure of any Nevada VA facilities and believe Congress should approve any changes moving forward.  Please provide details of your plan for ensuring Congressional engagement on this issue. 
I also respectfully request that you provide me a list of any VA facilities in Nevada that the VA is considering for closure or consolidation, along with an assessment of the need for closure.  If there are any Nevada facilities, the assessment should include the size of the facility, the use for the facility, how many VA employees work in the facility, the plan for how the services at the facility would be replaced if it is closed, and any other important details the VA finds relevant to informing Nevada veterans of the need for closure.
Again, I appreciate your attention to this issue of accountability for Nevada’s heroes and request a response no later than May 18, 2017.  It has been a privilege to work in collaboration with you to serve veterans, and I look forward to continuing our partnership together. 
U.S. Senator

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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