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SD Veterans Council names Sioux Falls VA Hospital Director in no-confidence letter

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 10:07 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -A health care program designed to benefit veterans, especially in rural areas, is causing concern for members of the South Dakota Veterans Council.

While many good things are happening for the 77,000 South Dakota Veterans at the Sioux Falls VA Hospital, one crucial program is a cause of grave concern for local Veterans organizations.

The President of the South Dakota Veteran’s Council Connie Johnson is grateful for many of the VA programs.

“The VA itself, I think is an amazing hospital. They’ve grown so much to adapt,” said Johnson.

She’s also concerned for fellow veterans regarding a serious, potentially life-threatening problem.

“But the Care In the Community Program that is happening in our Sioux Falls area hospital is been causing some issues to our veterans,” said Johnson.

The program, launched in 2019 was designed to give more health care options for Veterans.

“To seek assistance or care by local providers versus having to go to the hospital in Sioux Falls,” said Johnson.

The process needs to be pre-approved.

“You have to get referred out,” said Johnson.

And getting a referral appears to be a problem.

“There’s a very long wait time to get a processor on the phone to make the appointments,” said Johnson.

The phone system occasionally disconnects calls, and when a call gets through, there’s the wait to receive care.

“Two to three months that’s just too long,” said Johnson.

I asked, “Could be a matter of life and death? "

“It could be it for sure could be for some of our veterans,” said Johnson.

The Veteran’s council, comprised of six State Veterans organizations sent a letter to the VA Network Director Robert McDivitt, cc’ing Senators Thune, Rounds, and Representative Dusty Johnson saying the organizations have no confidence that Sioux Falls VA Director Lisa Simoneau can provide quality leadership and oversight.

“And we decided as a council that we wanted to pursue this letter based on what is happening for that Care In the Community Program,” said Johnson.

The concerns of veterans’ health care reverberated to Washington.

Senator Mike Rounds put those in charge at the VA to task, claiming the VA system nationwide is putting their own programs ahead of Veterans care.

“We’ve got a serious problem here that’s not going to go away,” said Senator Rounds in December 2020. “I really think there’s more of a driver here with regards to dollars and cents than what there is to making sure that the primary responsibility is to get that veteran the care that they want.”

The no-confidence letter could be making a difference. Sioux Falls VA Director Simoneau is scheduled to meet with the South Dakota Veteran’s Council tomorrow in Pierre. The Council includes the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of American, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“It’s not about tearing anybody down. It’s about saying hey we recognize this could be better and we want to help to make it better. Maybe listening to us would be beneficial,” said Johnson.

Simoneau, who was appointed director on January 5, 2020, provided a statement. “As Director of the Sioux Falls VA Health Care System, I take the concerns of the South Dakota Veterans Council very seriously. I meet with the VA stakeholder’s council monthly along with my leadership and attendees on the call can raise any questions they want at the meeting or send them to us in advance. I will be traveling to Pierre to meet with the Council in person. The Director of the VA Midwest Health Care Network (VISN 23) is aware of the concerns raised and the actions I am taking to address them.”

Other issues to be discussed at the meeting include the removal of a kiosk to reimburse Veterans for travel pay, and the discontinuation of their valet parking service.

McDivitt plans a visit to Sioux Falls in April, to see firsthand if improvements have taken place.

The US Government Accountability Office released a study indicating:

  • The VA hasn’t established a timeliness goal for veteran care
  • Few community providers use the VA’s new software system to exchange information electronically with VA medical centers
  • Few VA medical centers have the recommended number of staff for the program.

Senator Rounds offered his ongoing commitment to South Dakota Veterans today, by providing the following statement:

“Historically, the VA Health System in South Dakota has received high marks on the quality of care. The dedicated men and women who care for our nation’s heroes are due our respect and support. However, in recent months, we have seen a number of veterans’ health concerns in the southeast region of South Dakota.

In addition, I believe recent legislative action has created challenges for the quality of care for our veterans. Specifically, the MISSION Act was passed in D.C. and signed into law in 2018. I opposed it and expressed concerns that it would force our veterans to get care at a VA facility instead of a healthcare facility of their choosing.

South Dakota is a big state, and we have a lot of miles between VA healthcare access points. Veterans need to have the ability to choose between the VA and a local healthcare provider close to home. This should be a veteran’s decision, not a bureaucrat’s decision. We secured provisions to protect our South Dakota veterans’ access to Care in the Community, but I worry that some administration officials are interpreting the MISSION Act differently, restricting veterans from accessing their local physician. As I told VA Secretary McDonough last month during a Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Care in the Community is an issue and one that I intend to actively work on. Our veterans deserve it.”

Senator Rounds office staff are accepting calls from Veterans or their family members experiencing restrictions by the VA from using the Care in the Community Benefit program. The number to contact Round’s office is 844-875-5268 or by sending an email through the website rounds.senate.gov.

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