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BRAC For VA: Lawmakers Search For Ways To Reduce The Number Of VA Facilities
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Thursday initiated what could be a long and politically arduous process to get rid of aging and underused Department of Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide.
Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat, presented a draft bill that would create an 11-member, paid commission to recommend which facilities to close and where the VA should invest. While major veterans service organizations applauded efforts to “right-size” the VA, they opposed the commission-style process, comparing it to the Defense Department’s unpopular Base Realignment and Closure program.
There are also concerns that divesting facilities could create gaps in access to VA medical care, causing the department to send more veterans into the private sector.
Roe conceded the proposal, called the Asset Infrastructure Review Act – or AIR – would take “a significant amount of political courage.” The bill is still in its early stages, he said, and would likely change.
“It is an understatement to say the deck is stacked against the AIR Act,” Roe said. “This bill is bold, transformative and controversial. That said, veterans, VSOs and VA employees, and taxpayers alike, deserve more from each of us and to recognize how serious the problem before us is. If there’s any committee in Washington, D.C., that has the political courage to do what is necessary, it’s this one.”
The exterior of the Veterans Affairs Department hospital is shown in east Denver Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.AP Photo/David Zalubowski
VA Secretary David Shulkin said during a “State of the VA” address in May that dealing with bad infrastructure is one of his top priorities. About 57 percent of the thousands of VA facilities nationwide are more than 50 years old.
The VA is in the process of disposing of or finding another use for 430 vacant or nearly vacant buildings. The department is also reviewing another 784 buildings that are still in use. Regan Crump, a VA assistant deputy undersecretary for health, said Thursday that process would take about 18 months.
Crump said the VA wasn’t certain there was a need for a commission like what’s proposed in the AIR Act but that the agency would need “legislative flexibility” to support its infrastructure review.
The idea to divest VA facilities isn’t new. It’s been proposed by veterans service organization, the Government Accountability Office and the Commission on Care, which was established under former President Barack Obama to broadly examine the future of VA health care.
“We would recognize this as a necessary evil,” said Carl Blake, associate executive editor of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I don’t know anyone who was involved in BRAC who didn’t think BRAC was in some form evil, and yet it’s probably a necessary process. We don’t oppose what you’re trying to do, but we don’t believe a commission is the right way forward.”
Nearly everyone involved in the hearing stated the importance of involving local veterans when a VA facility is recommended for closure. The draft bill calls for public field hearings.
The bill also requires Shulkin to publish in the Federal Register by Jan. 15 the criteria to be used in choosing which facilities to close, modernize or realign. Veterans advocates warned against the speedy deadline.
Louis Celli, a director with the American Legion, called Thursday’s discussion a first step to “get the conversation started.” Like other organizations, the Legion is against the idea of a commission, which Celli said could be susceptible to corruption.
Walz said Democrats and Republicans on the committee would be working together on the proposal.
“We are working side by side in this, but it’s a journey – and it’s a tough one,” he said. “There’s probably not any more difficult thing in the realm of veterans and veterans’ issues than this topic. We have to get this right.”
©2017 the Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Gold Star family members might finally see an end to the so-called "Widows Tax" thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020.
The top Pentagon watchdog has announced it would be investigating all deaths of recruits during initial military training over the past five years, the agency said in a statement last week.
In a Dec. 4 memo, the DoD Inspector General said it was changing the scope of an investigation it had opened on Nov. 18 that was titled Evaluation of Medical Resources and Guidance to Trainers at Recruit Training Centers in the DoD. Its new title, the IG said, would be Evaluation of Medical Protocols and Deaths of Recruits in the DoD.
While its original objective of looking into the medical resources available to recruits would remain the same, the IG said it would now also review all deaths of recruits at military basic training facilities between Jan. 1, 2015 and Dec. 31, 2019.
The move comes in the wake of several deaths at basic training facilities over the past year. In April, the Navy announced a safety review after two prospective sailors died at its recruit training facility in Great Lakes, Illinois. Seaman Recruit Kelsey Nobles died after a fitness test that month; Seaman Recruit Kierra Evans also died after the run portion of the fitness test.
In September, an 18-year-old soldier died following a "medical emergency" before a training drill at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps has disciplined more than 20 Marines over misconduct at its San Diego boot camp since 2017, according to The Washington Post. The action came in the wake of a scandal involving the death of a 20-year-old Muslim recruit named Raheel Siddiqui, who fell 40 feet to his death at the Parris Island training facility, where he and other Muslims were targeted for abuse by their drill instructor (the instructor was later sentenced to 10 years in prison at court-martial).
According to the IG, Pentagon investigators will visit all DoD recruit training facilities and interview personnel from each service's education and training commands. They will also speak with personnel at military medical facilities, the Defense Health Agency, and those assigned at the Military Entrance Processing Command, which does the initial intake for civilians going into military service.
The number of substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct against senior Army officials increased this year, according to an Army Inspector General report recently presented to service leaders and obtained by Task & Purpose.
The document, which lays out broad details of IG investigations undertaken in fiscal year 2019, looks at investigations specific to senior Army officials, which includes "promotable colonels, general officers and senior executives," according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Emanuel Ortiz.
Marine Corps senior leaders have begun to express cautious openness to the idea of making the service's boot camps fully co-ed. But if Congress has its way, the service may be pushed toward full integration sooner than expected.
The final conference version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision that would require the service to integrate both its East Coast and West Coast entry-level training facilities within the next eight years.
An Indiana National Guard soldier died Saturday at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, located about 75 miles southeast of Indianapolis.
Cpl. Larry Litton Jr., of Martinsville, was 30 years old and an assistant squad leader with the 384th Military Police Company when he was found unresponsive at the facility.