- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 28, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Shuttering a Veterans Affairs hospital in Hot Springs and moving its services to Rapid City would be the cheapest option among six under consideration for revamping care in the Black Hills region, according to a much-anticipated federal study released Wednesday.

The 780-page Environmental Impact Study by the Department of Veterans Affairs considered six options for changes to the facilities in Hot Springs and Rapid City as part of an effort ongoing since 2011 by the VA Black Hills Health Care System to reconfigure its services.

The study found that closing the historic Battle Mountain Sanitarium, which the VA has said is its preferred option, would have an estimated 30-year cost of over $148.5 million, the lowest of the six. Taking no action would come with a more than $215 million price tag over the same time period.

But Sandra Horsman, the director for the VA in the Black Hills, stressed that the VA wouldn’t base its decision in costs, but in the quality of care provided to veterans.

“The primary reason for any selection of any of the alternatives is to ensure that we have safe and high-quality health care for veterans,” said Horsman. “It’s really not cost. Cost is certainly in the overall assessment, but our first and foremost concerns are the safety and the quality of care that we are providing to the veterans.”

The plan to close the sanitarium includes transitioning long-term care services 60 miles north to Rapid City, leaving only an outpatient clinic in the town of about 3,500 people. Veterans have vehemently opposed the closure, arguing that Hot Springs’ tranquil environment is crucial for vulnerable veterans.

The hospital in the remote Black Hills has provided recovering soldiers a bucolic haven for more than a century. Wounded warriors from Civil War battles at Antietam and Gettysburg traveled to the Battle Mountain Sanitarium for brief, intensive treatments for musculoskeletal and respiratory conditions. Physicians believed the dry air and warm, fabled mineral springs helped mend broken soldiers.

Today, veterans from the Vietnam to Iraq wars suffering from ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol abuse recuperate at this quiet retreat.

VA officials have said that moving the services to Rapid City would help attract physicians, better accommodate female and single-parent veterans and link patients with job opportunities and occupational training.

Meanwhile, the alternative proposed by the group “Save the VA,” one that calls for renovations and construction to continue and expand inpatient and outpatient services at the existing VA campus, would cost more than $247 million over the same period. A representative for the group could not be reached by phone Wednesday for comment on the study.

The study will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, and comments from the public will be accepted through Jan. 5. Horsman on Wednesday said there is no timeline set to decide the final fate of the hospital.

The state’s congressional delegation issued a statement after the study was released. Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, who is a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, encouraged the public to submit comments on the study.

“As we analyze the EIS, I will make sure the data is complete and not based on a pre-determined decision to close the facility,” Rounds said.

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