Next month is the deadline for public comments to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on its environmental study, which identified the greenfield property off Brownsboro Road as the agency’s preferred location for its new $923 million medical facility in Louisville to replace the 64-year-old Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Avenue.
While VA officials want to push forward with final approval for this site early next year, a growing number of voices locally have urged the VA to halt this process, calling the Brownsboro location inappropriate due to existing traffic congestion in the residential neighborhood and the difficulty of access for patients and staff. Some are calling for the VA to open up the site selection process to include vacant properties in the West End, as this major investment could bolster the economically depressed area that recently has witnessed the collapse of several major developments.
These critics’ top ally in the nation’s capital over the past year has been U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. — chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs — who has blasted the VA repeatedly over its site selection process in Louisville, including the inflated price the VA purchased the property for and the failure to fully examine alternative sites. In June, Miller even pulled authorization for $150 million in construction funds for the Louisville project from a spending bill — citing these same concerns and the numerous VA hospital projects plagued with cost overruns — though this authorization was later snuck in and finalized by Congress.
Though Miller did not run for re-election and will leave his position in January, he may soon take on a new role that would give him considerably more power over the VA’s decision in Louisville — leading the agency itself.
Miller is one of several names floated as a potential nominee for VA secretary under President-elect Donald Trump, a role in which he has expressed interest. Miller was one of the earliest backers in Congress of Trump’s campaign and served as one of its advisors on veterans issues. The policy positions he has advocated match the Trump campaign’s platform, calling for making it easier to fire VA bureaucrats and expanding the ability of veterans to seek private health care outside of VA facilities.
Such policies match another potential nominee to lead the VA, Pete Hegseth, an Army veteran who once ran Concerned Veterans for America — a relatively new conservative group that is funded by the Koch brothers’ political network. Two advisors of this organization are on Trump’s transition team, and Hegseth recently met with the president-elect in Trump Towers.
Miller declined an interview with IL on his vision for Louisville and the VA if he was named secretary.
While both Miller and Hegseth want to expand recently passed legislation that allows veterans to see a private health care provider if they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment — a result of the 2014 scandal on long waiting lists at VA facilities that led to the resignation of former Sec. Eric Shinseki — most traditional veterans service organizations fear this is part of a larger effort to gut the VA and enact wholesale privatization of the agency. These organizations also say this would explode costs while undermining services at VA facilities, citing a recent report by the VA that paying for veterans’ private health care would double the agency’s costs by 2019 and reach $450 billion by 2034, quadruple the current amount.
Trump’s 10-point plan to reform the agency states he will ensure that “every” veteran has the choice of seeking private care. Miller said in an interview with Military Times last week that he wants to expand access to private care, but “the only people that use the word ‘privatization’ are the Democrats and the unions.”
If Miller is named the new secretary of the VA, one would assume the chances of the Brownsboro site receiving final approval for a new hospital would be greatly diminished. But considering Miller’s strong criticism of the VA’s inability to construct any new medical facility without massive cost overruns and delays — in addition to the top candidates for this position pushing for more care in the private sector — there is also the question of whether a Trump administration would put a hold on any new and expensive facilities being built around the country. If so, Louisville might not see a new hospital anytime soon — whether it be at Brownsboro, the West End, downtown or anywhere else in the city.
Other names that have been floated in the media as potential VA secretaries are former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — all of whom have spoken favorably about allowing more access to private care outside of VA facilities.
Though the deadline to submit a public comment on the VA’s Environmental Impact Statement for the Brownsboro site originally was scheduled for Tuesday, this date was pushed back to Jan. 11 on Thursday. The city of Crossgate — which would be in the shadows of a new hospital there — has hired an attorney to help draft a comment in opposition to the site, as has Grow Smart Louisville, which just hired an attorney at Frost Brown Todd. Attorneys for both groups had requested that the deadline be pushed back.