WASHINGTON — Members of New Hampshire’s Congressional Delegation issued news releases on Wednesday lauded the end of a Veterans Affairs commission that had recommended closing outpatient clinics in Conway and Littleton.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in her release that she worked with a bipartisan group of her colleagues including Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) to end the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission process that threatened New Hampshire veterans’ care.
In a separate release U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, praised the news that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, which recommended closing Community-Based Outpatient Clinics in Conway, Somersworth, and Portsmouth, will no longer move forward.
Pappas, who visited the Conway Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in February said: “I am pleased that we were able to stop the closing of several health care clinics for our veterans, but the fact remains that it never should have gotten this far and VA should never have entertained closing down facilities that veterans in New Hampshire rely on for their care. There is nothing more sacred than the promise we make to those who have served our country in uniform, and I remain committed to fighting each and every day to ensure veterans get the care, services, and most importantly the respect that they have earned. Thank you to the veterans in New Hampshire who reached out and urged us to fight back against these proposed closures. I will always listen to our veteran’s community and fight to expand and improve VA health care in the Granite State.”
Ahead of the release of the AIR Commission recommendations, Pappas said he called for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough to take into consideration critical information about the importance of New Hampshire’s VA facilities before making recommendations that could undermine Granite State veterans’ access to VA health care and services. He noted that New Hampshire has more than 93,000 veterans, making up about 10 percent of the population, but the VA only has nine facilities located in the state, including the Manchester VA Medical Center and Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Conway, Portsmouth, Somersworth and Tilton.
He said, “I’ve visited many of these facilities and each of them provides critical services to Granite State veterans. ... The Conway CBOC provides primary care, mental health services, and hosts unique telehealth capabilities for rural communities in New Hampshire’s North Country. I recently toured the facility and met with doctors and staff who provide vital care to thousands of veterans in the Mount Washington Valley close to home.”
Hassan said she has consistently pushed back on recommendations to this commission, which included closing VA clinics in Littleton and Conway, and moving outpatient surgical care from the Manchester VA Medical Center to community providers. The plan would have left no outpatient VA clinic in northern New Hampshire.
The Conway Community Based Outpatient Clinic opened in 2010 and serves more than 1,000 veterans.
“As senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that upholds our obligations to America’s veterans,” the senators said in a joint statement. “We believe the recommendations put forth to the AIR Commission are not reflective of that goal, and would put veterans in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage, which is why we are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move forward. The commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure, and together we remain dedicated to providing the department with the resources and tools it needs to continue delivering quality care and earned services to veterans in 21st century facilities — now and into the future.”
According to the news release, the senators are ending the AIR Commission by announcing that the Senate will not approve nominees to the commission. Without the Senate’s approval of the nominees, no commission will be established and the process as outlined by the 2018 VA MISSION (Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks) Act will not move forward.
That act required the VA to undertake the Asset and Infrastructure Review initiative to study the current and future health-care needs of veterans across America, and to evaluate VA’s health-care infrastructure.
In March, the VA announced its recommendations to the AIR Commission, which included “Relocating all services at the Conway CBOC (Community Based Outpatient Clinic” and closing the Conway CBOC.”
Overall, the plan called for closing some aging and underused medical centers, building new hospitals, and closing and opening clinics as it adjusts its facilities to meet veteran demands across the country.
The report noted that the Conway clinic had 1,089 enrollees within a 30-minute drive in FY 2019, and the enrollee population was projected to decrease 10.1 percent in Carroll County through FY 2029.
The report found, “Relocating services to Veterans Community Care Program providers, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and Indian Health Service facilities maintains veteran access and is more sustainable. There is a critical access hospital and a FQHC in Carroll County.”
Combining New Hampshire and Vermont into a New England North region, the report also recommended closing clinics in Littleton and Newport, Vt., and relocating those services to a new CBOC in St. Johnsbury, Vt.; and closing clinics in Portsmouth and Somersworth and relocating those services to a new Dover CBOC. At the time, U.S. Rep. Anne Kuster (D-N.H.) also criticized the plan and asked McDonough to reconsider the recommendations for New Hampshire’s rural areas.
“The recommended closure of the Littleton, N.H., and Conway, N.H., CBOCs (Community Based Outreach Clinics) would leave a tremendous geographical gap in access to care for veterans who live in New Hampshire’s North Country,” she wrote.
Wednesday’s announcement from the senators follows Hassan’s efforts to highlight the harm that the recommendations would do to New Hampshire and her bipartisan push to end the commission. Hassan previously introduced legislation to eliminate the VA AIR Commission and pressed McDonough on the issue.
In introducing a bill to eliminate the commission in May, Hassan said: “I have been raising alarm bells on the VA’s recommendations to the AIR Commission to close clinics in Littleton and Conway, and move outpatient surgical care from Manchester to community providers. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been fighting back against recommendations as well. … We need to protect veterans’ access to care and ensure that we always keep our promise to support veterans after they sacrificed so much for our country.”
Hassan also led New Hampshire and Vermont senators in calling on the VA to protect veterans’ access to care in their states after the AIR Commission recommendations came out in March, and held a field hearing in Manchester to highlight this and other issues facing New Hampshire veterans.
Berlin Sun reporter Barbara Tetreault contributed to this report.