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Noem supports call for Black Hills VA chief's resignation

Black Hills VA Healthcare System Director Stephen DiStasio, at right, testifi es during Thursday’s congressional field hearing alongside Dr. Steven Julius, the VA’s chief medical officer for the Midwest. (Denise Ross/Republic) 1 / 2
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., at podium, answers questions after Thursday's congressional field hearing in Hot Springs. At Noem's right is Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.. To here left is Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. (Denise Ross/Republic)2 / 2

HOT SPRINGS -- A near-capacity crowd in the Hot Springs Mueller Center Auditorium stood and cheered during a congressional field hearing Thursday when a witness called for the resignation of the director of the Black Hills VA Healthcare System.

In a press conference shortly after the three-hour hearing ended, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., supported the call for Stephen DiStasio to leave his job.

"When we have results for our veterans that are so poor, leadership has to change," Noem said.

She said the original call for the resignation from Save the VA Committee member Amanda Campbell was "justified."

"It is very difficult to get a straight answer out of Mr. DiStasio," Noem told reporters after the hearing. "We do have a problem in the Black Hills VA Healthcare System, and our veterans are paying the costs."

Noem and the three other members of Congress who conducted the hearing said they were frustrated — even "offended" — that the two VA officials who testified did not have facts and figures ready to answer their questions.

In addition, Noem referred to an internal VA audit that shows the Black Hills VA Healthcare System has the worst track record in the country for serving veterans. Noem said she wishes the details of that report were better understood by the general public.

"I do not think the VA was prepared at all. Frankly, I was offended," Noem said. "They have been through congressional hearings before."

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairs the U.S. House VA Committee and said he, too, was not impressed with answers given by DiStasio and Dr. Steven Julius, chief medical officer for the VA's Midwest Healthcare Network.

"I was surprised witnesses from the VA were not prepared to answer basic questions," Miller said.

DiStasio said he was unsure what VA officials believe it will cost the agency to close its facility in Hot Springs as proposed. Likewise, he said he was unsure what it would cost to rehabilitate the existing buildings, an old sanitarium that has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Campbell, of Save the VA, said that group's best estimate to bring the facility into "100 percent compliance" is $20 million, based on information from the National Register of Historic Places and other reports. However, she said her group has not been able to get any information on that topic from the VA.

Miller said Congress has recently passed a $5 billion appropriation that includes money to rehabilitate old government buildings, and money is available to the VA if they choose to use it on the Hot Springs facility.

The members of Congress and the VA officials also clashed over how many veterans are served from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and how long patients wait to get appointments. The crowd frequently jeered and booed when DiStasio and Julius answered questions.

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., discounted VA officials claims that they cannot recruit health care professionals to live and work in Hot Springs. He said that a slow and steady reduction of services offered at the Hot Springs VA, starting in the mid-1990s, is likely the root cause of any recruiting difficulties.

In addition, witnesses who want the Hot Springs VA to remain open said VA job postings frequently are for temporary positions that will not last longer than two years. One job was posted for just eight hours before VA officials claimed they could not fill the position, witnesses said.

State Veterans Affairs Secretary Larry Zimmerman said having a VA facility in the same town as the state's veterans home has benefited many veterans who need healthcare services.

Pat Russell, co-chair of the Save the VA Committee, told the committee he believes VA officials in Washington decided years ago that they wanted to shutter the Hot Springs facility and have refused to re-evaluate that decision.

He pointed to services that, one at a time, have been ended — from laundry services to radiology to in-patient surgery.

"If they can't wreck it with a wrecking ball, they will wreck it one brick at a time," Russell said.

Noem said the decision should be based on what's best for veterans, not what is "convenient for the VA."

"I've seen no evidence that the VA plans to close Hot Springs is better for the veterans," she said.