By Erin Beck and Rebecca Arcure
Among numerous other recommendations that would alter veteran health care in West Virginia, a Veterans Administration report proposes the closure of the Franklin VA Clinic.
Before any closure, the proposal would have to go through a lengthy approval process.
As part of an effort to modernize veterans’ health care facilities, Congress passed the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Act (AIR Act) in 2018. That law established the AIR Commission and instructed it to develop a list of recommendations, including upgrades, new facilities, and closures.
A preliminary report conducted by the VA itself and released March 14 includes the recommendation that the Franklin VA Clinic close, stating that surrounding health care providers could serve the estimated 289 veteran patients. The report also said patients there are projected to decrease 5.5% by 2029.
Jack Bowers, a retired Navy captain and vice commander of the American Legion Post 30 in Franklin, said he does travel to other providers for some of his health care needs. But he said the closure would be especially hard on older and sicker veterans who can’t travel, and that veterans need a “local point of contact.”
“We’re talking about World War II veterans, Korean War, Vietnam, every war since then and in between,” he said, referencing current patients at the clinic.
He also said patients from surrounding counties visit the clinic. And while the report projects fewer veterans will receive care at the clinic in future years, Bowers noted that some veterans are currently returning from tours of duty. He noted that public transportation is severely lacking in rural areas.
“Some World War II veterans are in their upper 90s,” he said. “They’re not driving.”
The clinic in Franklin offers preventive health care and screenings, annual physicals, patient education, immunizations, limited diagnostic testing, management of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension, anticoagulation, health promotion, post-hospital follow-up, and women’s health services.
The recommendations also have broader implications for the state. According to a statement last week from the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance, the recommendations, if followed, would “significantly reduce service available in VA Medical Facilities located in West Virginia.”
Three VA Medical Centers in West Virginia – the Beckley VA Medical Center, the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, and the Hershel “Woody” Williams VAMC in Huntington – would reduce offered services and discontinue in-patient and emergency room care, according to a news release.
But the recommendations also include the addition of some services, including a new addiction recovery center in Charleston.
The AIR Act was part of the VA Mission Act, which, among other provisions, aimed to provide veterans with more in-demand community-based, outpatient care and reduce the need for inpatient care.
A news release at the time described the law as strengthening the VA’s ability to recruit and retain clinicians, authorizing telehealth across state lines, empowering veterans with increased access to community care, and establishing a new urgent care benefit that eligible veterans can access through the VA’s network of urgent care providers in the community.
“At the direction of Governor Justice, my staff and I have voiced our concerns to our federal elected leaders in D.C., asking them to represent the interests of West Virginia veterans,” said Ted Diaz, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance. “I do not believe veterans should have to choose between living in communities they love and having reasonable access to health care.”
In explaining their rationale for the recommendations, the VA said it wanted to invest in outpatient sites offering primary care, mental health care, and some specialty care, utilize virtual care, and establish community living centers for veterans with the most needs. The VA conducted more than 50 veteran listening sessions and interviewed VAMC leaders across the country, according to the report.
President Joe Biden appointed members to the AIR Commission, which will conduct its own review of the recommendations, last month. The AIR Commission will conduct public hearings as part of its review before submitting its own recommendations to the president for review in 2023. The president could reject the proposal or send it on to Congress; Congress could also choose to reject the proposal.
West Virginia’s senators Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat, on Friday released a public letter sent with ten other senators to President Biden, requesting that when he receives the final recommendations from the AIR Commission, he consults their offices “on a state-by-state basis for our feedback before you decide to approve or deny them.”
“For many elderly Veterans, VA facilities are the only place they seek care,” they wrote. “The reasons veterans often cite are that they are better understood, respected, and cared for at their local VA Medical Center (VAMC).
Time and time again, we have been told by elderly veterans that they enjoy visiting their VAMCs. They build networks of friends and VA staff that serve as support groups and keep them connected with their service. In an increasingly digital world, we cannot discount the importance of the human interaction and connection our veterans find at VA facilities, particularly with in-person services.”
If approved, implementation of the recommendations would begin no later than March of 2026, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which is seeking feedback on the proposal
Bowers urged veterans to give feedback for other veterans “less fortunate than them.”
Any veterans that would like to give feedback can go to https://www.veterans.senate.gov/airfeedback to voice their opinion on the matter.