Northampton VA medical center saved as senators dismantle closure commission

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, home to the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. Photographed on Thursday, March 10, 2022. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, expresses his opposition to the possible closure of the VA hospital in Leeds during a May 6 call with U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JIM McGOVERN’S OFFICE

Staff Writer
Published: 6/27/2022 8:05:59 PM
Modified: 6/27/2022 8:03:28 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators announced Monday the effective end of the federal commission that had proposed the closure of Veterans Affairs facilities including Northampton’s VA medical center.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and 11 other senators announced their plan to dismantle the federal Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission, which was tasked with reviewing the VA’s list of recommended closures and other changes to VA medical care. That list was published earlier this year and included the 105-acre VA campus in Leeds.

“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 their 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.”

In 2018, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, the VA MISSION Act, which required the VA to come up with a list of recommendations to “modernize” its medical facilities and health care delivery. That meant privatization of some services and the closure of three facilities: those in Northampton, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chillicothe, Ohio.

But the process laid out in the VA MISSION Act specified that those recommendations be reviewed by the AIR Commission, whose members would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The commission would then report its findings to the president, who could present them to Congress for a vote.

“Without the Senate’s approval of the nominees, no Commission will be established and the process as outlined by the VA MISSION Act will not move forward,” the bipartisan group of senators said.

In a statement Monday, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, praised the senators for working to end an “unfair and arbitrary process.” McGovern and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, had advocated for the Leeds facility to remain open, and McGovern said he would continue to do what he can to “block any legislative attempts to shut down the Leeds VA and take care away from our veterans.”

“This announcement is a huge relief to the thousands of veterans across Western and Central Massachusetts who rely on the Leeds VA for high-quality medical care,” McGovern said. “This entire ordeal has created anxiety and distress for veterans and their loved ones throughout our community — and I sincerely hope that this welcome news allows them to rest a bit easier tonight knowing that the commission and the recommended closures will not move forward.”

In late March, other local elected officials, veterans, VA staff, nurses and other supporters rallied at the Leeds campus in opposition to the proposed closure.

“We all know how devastating this would be to our communities and especially to our vets,” Rudy Renaud, an organizer with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said at the time. “Why is it that we’re always, always hurting those who help us the most, and we’re always hurting the most vulnerable?”

On Monday, the union representing VA workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, applauded the move, though the union said that the “fight against privatizing VA health care is not over.”

“This closure commission was a bad idea from the start,” the AFGE said. “Automatic, mass closures of VA facilities would deny veterans the comprehensive, quality care that our nation owes to those who have defended our country — an obligation first recognized by President Abraham Lincoln.”

In addition to Tester, members of the bipartisan group of senators are Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., John Thune, R-S.D., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Patty Murray, D-Wash., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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