Rural hospitals ready to fill any gaps

A Washington State Hospital Association spokeswoman says closure of the VA facility would have a significant impact on the community.

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The proposed closure of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center could be a mixed blessing for area rural hospitals.

Southeast Washington's public hospitals in Dayton and Pomeroy could find some financial relief to their funding woes if they provide some services to veterans.

Columbia County Hospital District in Dayton is looking for the silver lining. Should the VA hospital be closed, service will probably be contracted with other medical facilities.

Columbia County Hospital District has already signed an agreement with the VA to provide physicals for military personnel when they are discharged from the service, Hospital Administrator Bruce Grimshaw said.

``I would be completely open to offering anything for them that we do here already,'' Grimshaw said.

Although closure of the VA facility might help his hospital district, ``the closure of the VA would be a very hard thing for the area as a whole. It would be unfortunate if they did close it down and it would be up to the other facilities in the area to step up and help them out,'' Grimshaw said.

Dayton is 30 miles east of Walla Walla.

Further east, in Pomeroy, impact of a closure probably wouldn't be immediately felt. But eventually Garfield County Hospital District would see the results of postponed or deferred care, Hospital Administrator Andrew Craigie said.

``The direct impact, we don't believe, is going to be huge as far as our community goes. Where we do expect the impact is probably long-term,'' Craigie said.

``Any shrinking numbers of beds anywhere in the state right now is not a welcome thing,'' Craigie said.

Garfield County Memorial Hospital already has a contract with the VA to provide long-term care services to veterans who reside in Garfield County, but presently there are no veterans in the long-term care facility.

Although Garfield County is 65 miles from Walla Walla, it is still farther to the VA hospital in Spokane, which would be the next closest alternative for veterans' care, Craigie said.

It is a 3-hour drive from Walla Walla to Spokane, where the Spokane VA medical center is located. A few veterans from this area already use that facility for care.

Reasons are personal, such as relatives who live in Spokane, Public Affairs Specialist Jane Schilke said.

``Because of the distances between Spokane and Walla Walla I doubt that there would be many patients that would drive 3 hours from Walla Walla to Spokane to get care,'' Schilke said.

Schilke declined to comment on whether closure of the Walla Walla VA Medical Center would have an impact on the Spokane unit. ``It would be difficult to speculate until they make a final decision,'' she said.

The Spokane facility provides outpatient care and a six-bed in-patient psychiatric facility as well as an acute-care general medicine hospital with an occupancy of 25 to 30, Schilke said. The in-patient care facilities are presently full, she said.

Outpatient services are provided for behavioral health, including substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management and individual counseling.

The Walla Walla VA facility's proposed closure will have a significant impact on the community, Washington State Hospital Association spokeswoman Cassie Sauer said.

``Hospitals tend to pay better than others. It (health care) is not something that can be exported,'' Sauer said. Health-care dollars stay in communities, as hospitals purchase supplies, pay taxes on payroll and buy food from local vendors, she said.

Veterans have some specialized health-care needs, such as post traumatic stress disorder, and battlefield injuries, Sauer said.

If the Walla Walla VA closes, ``I think we'd have an economic concern, and a concern whether people can get the health care that they need. We are always worried about any barrier that comes between people and the health care that they need,'' Sauer said.

``You'd be losing a powerhouse employer in the community,'' she said.

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