“Oh God no!”; Hot Springs veterans react to latest VA closure threat

Published: Mar. 7, 2022 at 9:42 AM CST
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HOT SPRINGS, S.D. (KOTA) - On Friday, news broke that the Department of Veterans Affairs is proposing a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s V-A systems.

The restructuring would potentially lead to the closure to the Hot Springs and Fort Meade Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers. Most services would be transferred to a new centralized hospital in Rapid City.

The Hot Springs campus has survived threats of closure for over a decade, but for the people that fought to keep the historic hospital open, the news that the facilities are on the short-list of being closed comes as a surprise.

Patrick Russell, co-chair of the Hot Springs Save the VA Committee, has been pushing back against attempts to close the facility for years.

He thought things were finally settling down until he heard the latest announcement: “I’m totally taken aback. It’s an affront to all the veterans and the Veterans’ Town.”

KOTA Territory News stopped by Hot Springs to gather the reaction of local veterans on Sunday. The people we spoke with say they are opposed to losing access to local healthcare.

Rhonda Tomlinson, a Coast Guard veteran and barista at Wandering Bison Coffee, says the potential closure would force her to move to Rapid City to stay close to the services she needs.

She also believes the town of Hot Springs would also suffer, with fewer patients shopping at local businesses during their visit.

“If I gotta go to Rapid ... I might as well go to a city that’s gonna have more things to do,“ Tomlinson says. “But if I have to travel for healthcare, what is there for me in Hot Springs? What is gonna keep me here?”

Troy Goettsch, another veteran, says many elderly patients would have trouble making the trip to Rapid City.

He adds he personally wouldn’t feel safe driving because of disabilities stemming from his military service: “I’ve had a traumatic brain injury. I have PTSD. So, for me to continue to drive for services that I should be able to get locally. I don’t know how I could continue to make that move.”

The other worry is that rural patients will have a harder time accessing a Rapid City-based VA center, and have to deal with longer wait times, traffic and other issues stemming from urban life.

“A veteran from Alliance, Neb. that already drives three hours to come to Hot Springs - you take away those services, now they’ll be driving four hours to go up to Rapid City,” Russell says. “People are gonna travel for care, but it’s going to be much more difficult for many of our veterans.”

Final recommendations on whether to close the two campuses will be made March 14.

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