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The Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to care for veterans wherever they live, including remote parts of the country. The Trump administration had a plan to shut down many small clinics and some big, aging VA hospitals. Now a group of bipartisan senators is trying to block that deal. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Glasgow, Mont. - population 3,200 - is a quiet Western town, except when the railroad crossing is closed several times a day to let the BNSF freight trains steam across the Great Plains.
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LAWRENCE: The Washington Post once did a nationwide study and declared Glasgow the middle of nowhere because it's the largest town for a hundred miles in any direction, and it's more than four hours' drive from any city. That's a drive 83-year-old former Marine Robert Kelsey can feel in his bones.
ROBERT KELSEY: The next place I'd have to go is Billings.
LAWRENCE: It's six hours round trip to the VA in Billings.
KELSEY: And Billings, if you drive down there and drive back, it's kind of hard on an old guy like me.
LAWRENCE: As it is now, Kelsey gets a ride from a friend just 70 miles from his hometown of Malta to the VA clinic here in Glasgow. Until this month, it looked like this clinic would be shuttered. Following a law passed under the Trump administration, in March the VA issued the AIR report - yes, that's an acronym - for Asset and Infrastructure Review. The report looked at where new hospitals should be built, where clinics needed to be renovated and which ones were underused and should close, like the Glasgow VA.
STEVE BLEDSOE: We were all upset they were going to shut this down 'cause that just makes us longer trips to go out of town. I already go out of town enough as it is.
LAWRENCE: Steve Bledsoe, a Vietnam vet, already drives to Billings for work on his prosthetic leg. The trip can take nearly five hours if the weather cooperates. Bledsoe and others wrote to Montana senators, including Jon Tester, who happens to chair the Veterans Affairs Committee. Tester had been warning for years that he wouldn't tolerate closing any of Montana's VA clinics. It's a message he's been sending to his local constituents. Here he is speaking on KTVH news out of Helena.
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JON TESTER: And that's what I would tell the veterans out there. We're listening to you. We've heard from veterans from all over the country and veterans service organizations that have told us time and time again that this is a flawed process.
LAWRENCE: And the AIR report had recommended closing VA hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn. That got New York's Democratic senators on board. Republicans from Ohio, South Dakota and West Virginia, too, had VAs on the list. In all, a dozen senators joined in killing the AIR commission by not confirming any of its commissioners. But it wasn't just about closing old or underused VAs; it was about building new ones where they're needed most. John Byrnes is an Iraq and Afghanistan vet.
JOHN BYRNES: I live in North Carolina on the East Coast, but, you know, we have two very large VA facilities that were built during the New Deal. It's not really cool to get your health care in a building that's over 80 years old and pushing 100.
LAWRENCE: Byrnes is with Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that pushes greater privatization of VA care and supports what he calls right-sizing the VA. He says the lawmakers are ducking the hard choice for a quick political win.
BYRNES: Simple stories are easy to sell, right? So a simple story is, I kept the VA from taking away your clinic, whereas the real story that I would tell is, you kept the VA from building newer clinics, building better clinics, building three regional clinics to replace one hospital that made it a shorter drive.
LAWRENCE: The senators who killed the AIR commission say that they're working on a plan to rebuild VA's infrastructure. In the meantime, they're crowing about saving big VAs but also little ones like Glasgow, Mont. Everyone I asked here was delighted about the news, but I only saw half a dozen veterans go in during the three hours I sat outside. The town is pretty quiet...
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LAWRENCE: ...Except when the train goes by.
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LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Glasgow, Mont.
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