A pair of senators want to end the Department of Veterans Affairs facility closing commission before it even gets started.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., introduced legislation last week to cancel the mandated VA Asset and Infrastructure Review scheduled for 2022. The pair argued the idea — based on the military’s controversial base closing process — could be detrimental to rural veterans’ medical options.

“Although I am very supportive of reducing waste and other inefficiencies in the VA system, I am against bureaucrats in Washington cutting vital health care access to veterans in rural areas,” Manchin said in a statement.

“At a time when the VA is investing heavily in community care through their new access standards, we have to be especially sure that our existing infrastructure needs are met in rural states like West Virginia.”

The AIR commission was a key pillar of last year’s VA Mission Act. Under the law, department officials are to spend the next few years developing market assessments to determine whether certain aging VA facilities should be closed entirely, or replaced with new structures.

VA officials have said they have nearly 1,000 non-vacant but underused facilities spread across the country, creating a significant drain on department resources. Closing many of them would require an act of Congress.

In February, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie suggested lawmakers consider moving up the timeline for the commission. The two senators — both members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — want it dumped instead.

Rounds voted against the VA Mission Act and the AIR commission when the legislation passed overwhelmingly last summer. He and Manchin said they worry the commission will ignore the critical service VA health centers provide in rural areas, and instead recommending cuts there on the basis of fewer patients.

Guidelines for the commission’s work have yet to be finalized. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and an early proponent of the commission idea, called the senators’ concerns misguided.

“AIR is the opposite of a threat to rural facilities and rural veterans. It’s a lifeline,” he said in a statement.

“What AIR does is creates a bipartisan, objective, data-rich, and veteran and community-driven process to provide VA with critical recommendations about how VA’s medical centers and clinics can be brought into the 21st century to ensure that veterans receive the best possible care from their government.”

The AIR commission was designed to be paired with new community care rules being put in place this summer for veterans who want to receive medical care outside the VA system but at taxpayer cost.

Those new rules have prompted a debate over privatization of VA operations and responsibility, though administration officials have called those fears baseless.

Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a vocal advocate of the commission, called the senators’ legislation “irresponsible and misguided” and promised to fight it.

“(The bill) would force the VA to potentially waste billions in taxpayer dollars to maintain VA facilities that are clearly outdated and not serving the needs of the current or future veteran population,” he said. “We urge the Senate to reject this bill and we hope Sens. Rounds and Manchin reconsider this counterproductive proposal.”

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he sympathizes with the senators’ concerns, and promised close oversight of the commission. But he stopped short of backing the bill killing off the AIR idea altogether.

The measure is more likely to receive support in the House than in the Senate, where the original proposal passed by a 92-5 margin last summer. In the House, 70 Democrats voted against the idea, many citing concerns over potential facility closings.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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