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Native Sun News: Move of VA facility affects Indian veterans

The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Veterans of all races unite, with the support of the Hot Springs community, to protest the proposed closure of the VA Hospital.

HOT SPRINGS, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Nearly 4,000 Lakota Akicita from one reservation are facing what seems to be a reversal in gratitude for their service to the country that gave them their rights not even 100 years ago.

In December, the Veterans Administration proposed it would move its Hot Springs Medical Center to Rapid City, which would result in the loss of 330 jobs in a community with a population of 3,711. This is comparable to Rapid City losing Ellsworth Air Force Base in terms of employment opportunities and residents.

The entire region is part of the Black Hills Health Care System, covering South Dakota and portions of Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. The dismantling of this facility would force veterans to attend other facilities in the network that are anywhere from 50 to 100 miles away or be pushed to private sector health care centers that may lack the expertise in treating veterans.

The state of South Dakota established the State Soldiers Home in Hot Springs in 1889. In 1996 the VA Black Hills Health Care System was established with the consolidation of the VA Medical centers at Fort Meade and Hot Springs. By 1997 the VA was performing more than 150,000 outpatient visits, with over 6,000 inpatients for a total of more than 15,000 individual veteran patients receiving health care per year. This number includes more than 140 nursing home patients and over 500 domiciliary patients.

In 2011 the Battle Mountain Sanitarium was declared a national historic landmark. Later that same year, citing decreased usage, the VA announced plans to close the Hot Springs facility and move it to Rapid City.

“Hot Springs is a veterans’ town, and our VA facility has served America’s heroes for more than 100 years,” said Patrick Russell, president of AFGE Local 1539. “The proposal by the agency to close the doors of this veterans’ care center, on top of its already diminished capacities, is an outrage,” he said.

“This has become a pattern with the VA, where we are finding the agency systematically closing its inpatient care facilities in order to solely operate outpatient clinics and be in the business of managing contracts with the private sector," Russell said. "This is no way to care for our nation’s vets.”

AFGE members, the American Legion, veterans, community members and other supporters have mobilized grassroots efforts in Hot Springs to petition the agency to keep the facility open to area veterans. The historic facility has been the ideal location to treat those with posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions, given its small town atmosphere.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Black Hills Health Care System (VA BHHCS) have been holding public forums to discuss proposals for the improvement of veterans’ health care services in parts of South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. The community is engaged, and feedback has been thoughtful and productive.

In these public discussions, Steve DiStasio, director of VA BHHCS, emphasizes there have been no changes in the way veterans are receiving health care. “These are proposals, nothing has been decided and no final decisions have been made,” he said in a prepared statement.

“The driving factors leading to proposals for change are VA’s commitment to deliver safe, high quality health care and to decrease travel time for veterans and their families," he said.

Proposals include opening a new Hot Springs community-based outpatient clinic either co-located with the Fall River Hospital or the State Veterans Home or at a free-standing site. This VA-staffed clinic would provide the same outpatient care veterans currently receive, but in a modern, more efficient building for providing health care, primary care, mental health and limited specialty care. Veterans will continue to receive care from the same physicians and nurses they currently see.

“We want to continue to provide dialysis and would like to purchase pharmacy, laboratory and x-ray services at the Fall River Hospital,” said DiStasio. “A phased plan would be implemented to close the VA Hot Springs inpatient and nursing home units, operating rooms and urgent care facilities.”

“Expansion in Rapid City would take care of more veterans and would also provide x-ray, lab, pharmacy and physical therapy services – allowing VA to provide more services where more veterans live," he said.

According to DiStasio, this new structure would be designed to meet modern health care standards and help the VA better accommodate disabled veterans, more female veterans and veterans with children.

“Veterans would benefit from increased access to job training and job sites, state-of-the-art home-like facilities, educational opportunities, housing options following treatment, and other community services," he added. "This new facility would allow VA to phase out use of the Hot Springs Domiciliary, which is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“Our primary goal is to preserve the best possible access to VA health care,” DiStasio said. “To do this, VA BHHCS will engage veterans in these discussions and establish stronger partnerships with other health care agencies in communities throughout the Black Hills service area.”

The proposals are posted online for public viewing at There is still time to have your voice heard. Veterans, family members, community and business leaders and the general public are invited to read more about the proposals and share feedback on line at

In Hot Springs, during a community-wide show of support for the veterans, as well as a protest on the proposed closure, the citizens of Hot Springs invited tribal veterans from all over South Dakota to join them in their show of solidarity. A parade of supporters rode in vehicles or on horseback or walked up North Fifth Street, where every street corner and almost every front yard had a sign declaring the support of the community for the veterans. Walkers carried signs calling for the country’s gratitude for the warriors who served selflessly and without hesitation.

The protest, which ended up in the visitor parking lot of the new VA entrance, was a mingled crowd of Native and non-Native, old and young and veterans and their families. A Lakota drum group rode on the back of a pickup truck singing honor songs. In the back seat of an older model car, a single Lakota man sat beating a small hand drum – no song, just a steady, strong beat.

(Contact Karin Eagle at