Vets skeptical of VA assurances

The VA's acting undersecretary says there will be `absolutely no cuts' to vets' health care.

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Cheers and jeers greeted visiting federal officials who were in Walla Walla Thursday to talk about veterans' health care.

The visit to the Walla Walla veterans hospital drew a standing-room-only crowd to the meeting with Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and Dr.

Jonathan Perlin, Veterans Administration acting undersecretary for health.

At issue were proposals by a federal commission to relocate inpatient and outpatient facilities now centered at the Jonathan M.

Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

After a quick tour of the facility's main hospital building, which was built in the 1930s, Nethercutt, Perlin and other VA officials spoke to veterans in the medical center's theater building and fielded several questions during an hour-long meeting.

While Nethercutt drew applause when he said he ``didn't like the report and didn't like the recommendations'' of the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services commission, pledges that services would be preserved if changes were made were greeted skeptically by some.

``We are absolutely not going to cut care to any veteran,'' Perlin told the crowd.

But, he said, a way must be found to eliminate outdated and under-used facilities now under the VA's care to free up dollars to improve services.

``The goal is to redirect dollars to serve veterans, not bricks,'' he said.

But Ron Fry, state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told Perlin that local veterans ``don't have any faith in the leadership'' of the regional VA network and local input was not included in the CARES report.

``We are totally in support of the CARES program,'' Fry said. ``However the way it was carried out here was people just came in here and told us this is the way it's going to be.''Fry said proposed changes to the Walla Walla facility should be stopped until a study can be done to determine the needs of area veterans. ``Then come to us with your plan and work with us,'' he said.

Perlin thanked Fry for his ``passion and his commitment'' and said officials want to make sure alternatives for care are in place before anything happens to the present facility.

Alice Bailey, commander of the VFW post in Milton-Freewater, told officials the number of veterans served by the Walla Walla facility was greater than official figures listed.

The Walla Walla hospital's ``catchment area'' includes veterans from southeastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and Idaho, Bailey said. In addition, veterans from even farther away come here ``because they know they get good quality care here.''Bailey also questioned if local medical facilities would be able to handle the influx of veterans if inpatient facilities at the Wainwright center were closed.

In response, Perlin again stressed that services would be continued and that local views will be listened to.

``I want to reiterate we're not going to do anything until there are alternatives in place.

``I understand the dialogues in the past have not been good,'' he said. ``But this marks a turning point...''The assurances did not sit well with some in Thursday's audience.

``What we're looking at is a replay of two other meetings we've been at,'' one speaker told Perlin.

``There's nothing new being said here. We're asking for what we've earned,'' he said.

Another veteran, Fay Lyon, adjutant of the Disabled American Veterans Tri-Cities Chapter 46, said after Thursday's meeting veterans ``heard some of the rhetoric that we've heard before, but what we haven't heard is how are they are going to implement (any changes).''``That's one of the big fears we have,'' he said. ``How are they going to do it?''

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