Hundreds of people attend the Aug. 17, 2023, grand opening of a Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
RAPID CITY — The long-debated, evolving plans for veterans’ health care in the Black Hills took a step forward Thursday with the grand opening of a new outpatient clinic.
The 49,000-square-foot Rapid City facility is triple the size of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ previous clinic in the city.
That’s a welcome development for Ricky L. Robertson, an Air Force veteran at Thursday’s opening ceremony who said the VA outgrew the prior site.
“That building down there, it was in terrible shape,” he said. “So, yeah, this is going to be great, I think.”
The VA is leasing the new space, which is near the corner of U.S. Highway 16 and Catron Boulevard. It’s owned by a company affiliated with Rapid City developer Hani Shafai, whose Dream Design International and other local partners built the facility over the past couple of years. Shafai, who told South Dakota Searchlight the project cost more than $25 million, said he’s proud to play a part in helping veterans.
“To be part of it is really a great honor,” Shafai said. “You cannot describe the feeling. You really can’t.”
In recent years, the VA had even bigger plans for Rapid City. Congress passed a law in 2018 that required the agency to undertake a nationwide modernization and realignment. The VA’s recommendations for the Black Hills in 2022 included relocating inpatient services from Hot Springs and Sturgis to Rapid City, and reducing services in the smaller two cities to outpatient care. In eastern South Dakota, the VA recommended closing a clinic in Wagner.
Last summer, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators — including South Dakota’s John Thune and Mike Rounds, both Republicans — responded to public outrage in affected communities by refusing to confirm nominees for the committee tasked with reviewing and finalizing the recommendations. That intervention halted the reorganization plans.
Prior to the most recent reorganization effort, the VA campus in Hot Springs had long been under threat of a closure or reduction in services. Patrick Russell, co-chair of a Save the VA group in the city, said Thursday by phone that he doesn’t see the VA’s new investment in Rapid City outpatient care as a threat to Hot Springs.
“Save the VA has never been opposed to expanding the clinical services in Rapid City,” Russell said.
Yet he criticized the VA for gradually reducing services in Hot Springs for more than a decade since talk of closing the campus surfaced.
“If you can’t knock down a wall with a wrecking ball, all you do is start removing bricks one at a time until the wall is so weak it just tumbles,” Russell said.
The Hot Springs VA Medical Center still offers inpatient services, including a domiciliary where veterans stay while receiving treatment for substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. The Fort Meade VA Medical Center in Sturgis also continues to offer forms of inpatient care.
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, attended Thursday’s grand opening. He said the future of the Hot Springs and Sturgis campuses is secure, and he doesn’t think the blocked reorganization recommendations “will ever be taken up for action.”
“Hot Springs and Fort Meade are going to continue to do a great job serving veterans,” Johnson said, “not only for the rest of my career, but for the rest of my life.”
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