Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

VA secretary should visit NM clinics and hear from veterans

Apr 20—Once again it appears to be a case of out of sight, out of mind when it comes to our veterans.

Case in point is a proposal from Washington, DC, to close four veteran outpatient clinics in rural northern New Mexico.

Yes, the VA has 12 clinics here: Alamogordo, Artesia, Española, Farmington, Gallup, Las Vegas, Raton, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Silver City, Taos and Truth or Consequences, with its main hospital in Albuquerque. While that sounds like a lot, New Mexico is the fifth-largest state in the nation, has three Air Force bases and an Army Missile Range, and the highest concentration of veterans compared to other states and the nation as a whole, according to state data.

Yet the US Department of Veterans Affairs last month released a list of community-based outpatient clinics it wants to close in a years-long process aimed at modernizing and streamlining its infrastructure. On the hit list are the clinics in Española, Gallup, Las Vegas and Raton. It also proposes closing Rio Rancho’s clinic and sending those patients to the Albuquerque hospital.

We understand our rural populations are flat at best, but unless we are talking about a clinic serving just a handful of patients, completely shutting down four of the seven clinics in northern New Mexico is a draconian proposal that rightfully has New Mexico’s congressional delegation up in arm. US Sen. Martin Heinrich, DN.M., says the analysis done by the VA has flaws, including being based on pre-pandemic data as well as assuming local providers will be able to fill the gap in health care in the rural, tribal and predominantly Hispanic areas.

US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-Santa Fe, points out there are insufficient medical providers in the targeted communities and the recommendations contradict the VA’s own findings from local veteran stakeholder listening sessions.

Fortunately, the closures aren’t etched in stone. Regional VA officials say the recommendations are open for debate and will be considered by a special commission that will conduct public hearings as part of its review. The special commission is slated to submit its own recommendations to the president for consideration next year.

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Though the VA says closing facilities in areas with declining populations or usage would be best for veterans, many health care providers in rural New Mexico have left, making thousands of veterans in the northern part of the state even more reliant on their local VA outpatient clinics .

So if cuts need to be made, why not consider scaling back days or hours of operation rather than full closure? At least then our veterans will still have access to in-person care.

And while supplementing — not replacing — some care with telemedicine could also be an option, as our congressional delegation noted in a letter to US Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough last week, telehealth is an inadequate substitute. That’s in part because of the unreliability and lack of broadband in rural areas and the absence of digital literacy among many elderly veterans who simply “don’t do computers.” It’s also because, as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and surgeon Frank Fisher of Rio Rancho shared in a letter to the Journal, “a brief, targeted physical examination, triggered by a patient comment, can potentially be life-saving, and only in- person interactions between physician and patient allow for this.”

Heinrich met with veterans in Las Vegas on Tuesday, US Sen. Ben Ray Luján is meeting with veterans there today, and along with Leger Fernández they have asked McDonough to come and speak firsthand with veterans about how integral the VA’s outpatient clinics are in rural and tribal communities here.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask. The VA secretary should come and meet with veterans like Fisher, because there’s so much more to this story than a ledger in a bureaucrat’s office. We are talking about the medical care of men and women who sacrificed much so we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. Every option to keeping in-person VA health care available to our vets should be carefully considered. They deserve that much.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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