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Veterans celebrate as rural clinics and PTSD care saved from closure

Heinrich and McDonough in Albuquerque
Courtesy of the office of Martin Heinrich
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough visits a VA health center in Albuquerque, with Senator Martin Heinrich

Across New Mexico, healthcare providers and advocates for veterans' care welcomed Monday's news that proposals to close four rural Veterans Affairs clinics and relocate key mental healthcare would not move forward.

"I'm thrilled with the idea that the clinic would stay open," said Joseph Keel, an Air Force veteran and doctor who has worked at the VA clinic in Española for almost six years.

The clinic was threatened with closure under a set of recommendations issued in March by the Department for Veterans Affairs earlier this year, after a 2018 reform bill mandated a comprehensive review.

In New Mexico, it was proposed that clinics close in Ratón, Las Vegas and Gallup as well as Española. Together, they serve more than 4,000 people, according to Congressional Representative Teresa Leger Fernández, who opposed the proposed closures. It was also proposed that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment be moved from Albuquerque to Anthem, Arizona.

Keel said the majority of his patients are Vietnam veterans, in their sixties and seventies, and that their care requires a certain skill set. Many have PTSD and chronic diseases.

He said if the clinic had closed, it would have forced 800 people to, "drive an hour, either north or south, to go to other VA facilities, or to be absorbed into a community that already has limitations on the availability of healthcare."

Espanola VA clinic
Courtesy of Joseph Keel
The VA clinic in Española

But on Monday Democratic US Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico announced that they had joined a bipartisan group of 12 senators opposing the review process.

Their opposition, they said, meant that the Senate would not seat the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission which was due to look at the recommendations and pass them on to the president.

"Consequently, those four CBOCs [community-based outpatient clinics] are looking very good, well into the future, which I think is a huge, huge deal for veterans in rural New Mexico," said Heinrich, speaking in Albuquerque Monday, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, who is visiting the state.

McDonough said modernization of services is still necessary, but hinted at a different approach.

"A well-functioning process to modernize our healthcare facilities will be one that is carried out more publicly, one that is carried out in greater consultation with our stakeholders, one that's carried out in a way that doesn't surprise people who rely on our services," he said at the press conference.

McDonough visited Gallup Tuesday, where one of the most remote clinics opened in 2015. He told KUNM after the visit that the population there had been severely impacted by the pandemic, with secondary impacts including veterans not seeking medical care because they were afraid to catch the virus, or because they did not want to take up care that someone else might need.

He said this had resulted in, for instance, complications from diabetic ulcers. He also said practitioners told him about, "some complicated health care mental health concerns as a result of the isolation," of the pandemic.

But at least the Gallup clinic is set to remain open.

"Before they had the clinic open in Gallup, some of the vets would have to hitchhike two-and-a-half hours from Gallup into the city to try to get seen and then hitchhike back home," said Claudia Risner, Chair of the Veterans and Military Families Caucus of the NM Democratic Party, and a Navy veteran.

"We are very happy," she said of the news that the clinics were not in immediate danger of closing, and adding she thought the review had been flawed in its approach.

"If you're going to measure the effectiveness of something, efficiency really isn't the appropriate measure for government," she said. "We want it to be effective in that every veteran has access to the medical treatment and care that they need."

There were about 135,230 veterans living in New Mexico as of 2019, according to the state Department of Workforce Solutions, making up around 8.4% of the adult population.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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