Can they save the VA?

In 1987, U.S. Rep. Tom Foley was House majority leader. When officials at the VA threatened to close down the Walla Walla VA medical center, Foley squashed the move. Does anyone have the political clo

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ANALYSIS

In 1987 the top officials at the U.S. Veterans Administration were intent on closing Walla Walla's VA medical center.

Tom Foley was intent on saving it.

Foley won. He had the political muscle.

The Spokane Democrat was, at the time, Eastern Washington's representative to Congress and _ more importantly _ the House majority leader. Foley's colleagues in the House, as well as the Senate, were falling over themselves to do him a favor.

Foley was able to get through Congress a prohibition against downgrading the medical center from a full-service hospital.

Since then much has changed. The agency that oversees veterans programs is now called the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Foley is no longer in Congress. He was defeated in 1994 by Republican George Nethercutt, who still holds the position.

But what hasn't changed is that the medical center has again been targeted to be downgraded (this time by a federal commission) and politics will play a role in the ultimate outcome.

``If the (current) majority leader, Tom DeLay (R-Texas), wanted to keep the VA open, it would be kept open,'' said Lance LeLoup, a professor of political science at Washington State University.

The heavy hitters in Congress, however, haven't weighed in on the current proposal to turn the full-service hospital into an outpatient clinic.

That could change.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. It was at Murray's request that Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the committee, agreed to hold a Senate hearing on the VA plan in Walla Walla. The hearing is set for 1 pm. Monday at the Walla Walla Community College conference center.

But Murray is in the minority party, which will make it tougher to convince Republican leaders in the Senate to intercede. Washington's junior senator, Maria Cantwell, is also a Democrat.

It is possible the two Democrats can convince the Senate to overrule VA officials, but it will be a challenge. The majority party holds almost all the power.

Nethercutt is in the Republican majority that rules the House. But Nethercutt doesn't hold a leadership position, and he is in his last term.

Nethercutt decided to run against Murray for the Senate instead of seeking a sixth term.

While Nethercutt does have some clout as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he isn't in a particularly good position to extract favors from his House colleagues. The political muscle of a congressman, even one with 10 years of seniority, begins to atrophy the second he announces he isn't seeking re-election.

In the 1980s, Foley's political muscles were bulging.

Foley, who would become House speaker in 1989, called on his ``friends'' in the House to put the squeeze on the top VA administrator, Gen.

Thomas Turnage. Foley quickly got the support of the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep.

G.V. ``Sonny'' Montgomery, D-Miss.

Montgomery made saving the Walla Walla hospital a priority. He kept Foley updated on his efforts. Montgomery even closed his note to Foley with a personal touch.

``I know veterans who use the VA hospital at Walla Walla, and the community itself, are grateful for the strong support and leadership you have provided in this matter.

``Mr. Leader, it is always a pleasure to work with you,'' Montgomery wrote.

Others in Congress were equally intent on making Foley happy. The result was approval of legislation aimed at blocking future efforts by VA officials to reduce service at the Walla Walla hospital.

Two years later, The Washington Post sent a reporter to Walla Walla to do an article about the amount of power Congress wields over the VA.

``If Edward J. Derwinski, the new secretary of Veterans Affairs, has any question about his ability to control his new department, senior agency executives say he should come to this small ranching town in Eastern Washington,'' wrote Post reporter Bill McAllister.

McAllister went on to write that ``community leaders complained that the agency's `central office' failed to recognize the importance of the hospital and its 320 employees to the local economy.

``Agency officials also failed to realize that the local affiliates of the national veterans organizations would galvanize support here for the hospital. Turnage, the retired general who then was chief of the Veterans Administration, promised to visit to investigate the furor. He never got a chance.

``The officials also forgot that Walla Walla is in the district of Rep. Thomas S.

Foley, the House majority leader.'' McAllister quoted Dan Sullivan, then the Walla Walla hospital's spokesman, as saying the involvement of Congress was ``a wonderful, textbook example of how the system works.'' That system is still in place today. Politics continue to play a role in the decision-making process at the VA and other federal agencies.

And that means Specter's decision to hold a Senate hearing could be significant in preserving the hospital's mission as a full-service facility.

Rick Eskil can be reached at reskil@ubnet.com or by calling 5253300, ext. 271.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE LOCAL VA

  • 1858 _ Fort Walla Walla moves to location of what will become the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Walla Walla. Historic buildings constructed between this date and the turn of the century remain on the campus.
  • 1910 _ Fort closed.
  • 1921 _ Conversion to VA hospital begins. First patient admitted in 1922.
  • 1930s _ Main hospital building constructed.
  • April 1996 _ Hospital was renamed Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center to honor Wainwright, a World War II Medal of Honor winner who historians believe was born here.
  • Present _ As of 2003, the facility serves more than 15 counties in Southeastern Washington, Northeastern Oregon and Central Idaho with about 12,000 patient visits annually. The Center is also Walla Walla County's 13th largest employer with 365 employees and an annual payroll of between $21 million to $24 million.
  • June 2002 _ Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services process initiated.
  • July 2003 _ Department of Veterans Affairs directs VISN 20 to rewrite its recommendations to include ``closure or realignment'' options for the three Washington state facilities.
  • August 2003 _ Draft plan released Aug. 4 calls for Walla Walla facility to remain open as outpatient clinic. Nursing home care would be moved from Walla Walla to Spokane. Inpatient medical care would be contracted out to other providers.
  • September 2003 _ CARES commission holds hearing in Walla Walla on changes to local facility.
  • December 2003 _ CARES commission says it concurs with recommendation for closure of inpatient facilities and moving outpatient facilities elsewhere.
  • February 2004 _ Commission officially recommends closing inpatient facilities at Walla Walla.
  • Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Anthony Principi, has 30 days to consider recommendation and issue decision.
  • March 2004 _ Sen. Patty Murray announces Senate Committe on Veterans Affairs will hold field hearing in Washington state on pending changes to VA health care. Local veterans and Wainwright Medical Center employees rally on March 16 to decry pending changes to the local VA facility. Principi delays decision on recommended changes.
  • April 2004 _ Dr. Jonathan Perlin, acting undersecretary for VA health administration, and Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., visit Wainwright Medical Center to hear concerns.

Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs to hold field hearing in Walla Walla on April 12 at Walla Walla Community Colleg

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