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Cunningham, Bilirakis Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Protect VA Facilities Plagued by Flooding

May 22, 2019 by Dan McCue
Representative Joe Cunningham, D-S.C. (Screen grab via C-Span)

Representatives Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., and Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., have introduced bipartisan legislation to address chronic flooding that places Veterans Affairs medical facilities at risk on a regular basis.

The bill the representatives filed Tuesday, called the VA Community Infrastructure Act, would create a new Department of Veterans Affairs community infrastructure program to help pay for flooding-related state and local infrastructure projects that would benefit these facilities.

The bill requires preference be given to medical facilities in areas with large and rapidly-growing veteran populations, such as Charleston, South Carolina.

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston currently provides care for approximately 78,000 veterans living along the South Carolina and Georgia coast, but it is increasingly being threatened by recurrent flooding as a result of sea level rise.

Currently, the VA is not authorized to fund infrastructure projects that are not on its property; this bipartisan legislation would enable the VA to work with surrounding communities on critical infrastructure projects, such as drainage tunnels, road improvements, and flood walls.

“The Lowcountry needs serious investment in flood mitigation, especially in Charleston’s medical district,” Cunningham, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a written statement.

“Recurrent flooding is compromising access to Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center when our veterans might need it the most, and VA medical facilities across the country face similar challenges,” he added,

Cunningham went on to say the “common-sense” legislation would “ensure veterans can safely access the care they are owed.”

Representative Bilirakis said passage of the bill would address a critical infrastructure need throughout the country. At present, at least 16 VA medical centers, from Texas to Virginia, are forced to temporarily close on a regular basis due to flooding.

“As part of that initiative, our bill tackles those issues in areas that are contiguous to VA facilities located in flood prone areas, such as the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, which many of my veteran constituents rely on for care,” he said. “This is one important way we can ensure veterans are able to access the care they need at VA medical centers, regardless of weather conditions.”

The filing of the bill comes at a time when the issue of flooding is creating a sense of urgency in Cunningham’s South Carolina district. The Charleston Post and Courier newspaper reported this week that Dr. David Cole, president of the University of South Carolina, has written Governor Henry McMaster, complaining that flooding in Charleston’s so-called medical district on the south side of the city is threatening to compromise patient care.

The district is home to three hospitals: the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Roper Hospital and the Medical University of South Carolina, the region’s only Level I trauma center.

In the not too distant future a new children’s hospital is also slated to open in the neighborhood.

According to the Post and Courier, Cole warned McMaster, “There is increasing concern that our level of service to our patients may, in the very near future, be compromised unless immediate action is taken.”

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