VA hearing draws sharp words

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The fight over the fate of Walla Walla's veterans hospital took on a new edge Monday.

After a sometimes-feisty field hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., vowed to take the battle back to Washington, D.C., to get the hospital off a closure list.

``I want to put the (Veterans Administration) on notice that what they do here will be noticed,'' Murray said at the close of the afternoon-long hearing.

Testimony from the hearing witnesses centered primarily on the proposed closure of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

At the hearing, Murray interrogated Dr. Leslie Burger, director of the Veterans Health Administration's regional network, which includes Walla Walla, on what the VA intends to do to replace facilities if the hospital closes.

Under questioning, Burger said the VA has no plans to build either long-term or mental health care facilities to replace ones now in existence if the Walla Walla facility is closed.

``Whether it is provided on the campus or in the community needs to be studied,'' he told Murray.

Murray then pointed out that in 1987, former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., inserted language into the federal appropriations act to protect health care provided by the Walla Walla VA center.

``Do I understand the VA is going to try and circumvent this law?'' Murray asked Burger.

Burger replied that, according to a legal opinion from the VA's general counsel, the language Foley included ``referred only to that fiscal year'' and was not in effect now.

Murray said she found it ``very interesting'' that the VA asked for the legal opinion after the decision had been made to recommend closure of the Walla Walla facility.

She then read from a letter by Foley, dated April 9, which Foley said he ``strongly disagreed'' with that opinion and that his language was intended to ensure the future of the Walla Walla facility.

``My language has stood unchallenged for more than 15 years because my intent to provide indefinite health care at the Walla Walla Medical Center was very clear,'' Foley wrote.

Murray also questioned Burger on the estimated costs to bring the Walla Walla facility's buildings up to modern standards and how much it would cost to contract out all health care.

Burger said estimates were that it would cost up to $28 million to bring the buildings all up to standard and that replacement costs would range from $70 million to $71 million. He said he did not have information on what it would cost to contract out all care, but promised he would provide the information.

Testimony from other witnesses throughout the afternoon reiterated concerns of what will happen to veterans and their families if the recommendations of the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services commission are carried out.

The recommendations to move outpatient care to a yet-unspecified location and contract out inpatient mental health and long-term care have ``terrified'' local veterans and their families, said Ron Fry, state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The Walla Walla facility serves a ``catchment area'' covering 40,000 square-miles, Fry said. ``We do have a dire need for our veterans to be treated locally,'' he said.

Other veterans condemned what they said was a lack of any studies by the VA to find alternatives for care now provided at the Wainwright medical center and the lack of explanations of what will follow if the cutbacks occur.

Veterans affairs officials from Washington and Oregon also told Murray they were concerned the closure would put more burden on state health-care systems.

``I don't see how it's going to get better when the public sector is strained,'' said John King, Washington state director of veterans affairs.

Local officials who testified last also criticized the process the VA has followed and their frustration over getting answers to their questions.

Speaking for the city of Walla Walla, Councilman Jerry Cummins said the CARES process has been a ``top-down decision-making that will harm our local community.''Cummins listed the objections the city has over unanswered questions of environmental cleanup, preservation of historic buildings, economic impacts and other issues.

``It sounds like the city is being set up to clean up the federal government's mess,'' he said.

``Senator, we are frustrated, upset and even angry, but we are not without hope,'' Cummins said. ``We will fight to keep the (facility) here in Walla Walla.''After the hearing, Murray said she was hopeful that the ``tremendous outpouring'' of community opinion will enable legislators to convince the VA to remove the Wainwright facility from the closure list.

Murray also reiterated her intention to fight for the facility.

If Principi goes ahead with the closure, Murray said ``we're going to have to determine what process to go through'' to overturn the decision.

``But the fight is not over,'' she concluded.

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