VA needs OK from Congress to downgrade local hospital

A 1987 provision approved by Congess permanently blocks the VA's authority to change the mission of the local VA Medical Center from a full-service hospital. It is still the law.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs would be breaking the law if it downgrades the full-service Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center to an outpatient clinic.

In 1987, Congress approved legislation, which was part of that year's supplemental appropriations bill. The legislation called for a prohibition against changing the mission _ or amount of service offered _ at the hospital from what it was in January 1987.

Why then are VA officials and the commission assigned to revamp the entire VA medical system even considering changing the local hospital's mission until Congress rescinds or alters its 1987 order? That's what Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wanted to know Monday as she opened the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee field hearing on the proposed changes at the hospital.

The answers she received were not satisfactory.

VA officials contend they have the authority based on an opinion from VA lawyers, which says the 1987 prohibition pertained only to that year. But Murray pointed out that VA officials asked for legal advice after _ not before _ they had developed the plan to downgrade the hospital.

Murray said she went to the source to determine the intent of the 1987 law. She asked the author of the legislation, former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash.

Foley, in a written response to Murray dated April 9, 2004, said: ``Congressional intent at the time _ and my intentions specifically for the Walla Walla Medical Center _ was very clear. I acted to make health care available to veterans indefinitely at the Walla Walla Medical Center.'' And that's essentially what Foley said back in 1987 at the time a House-Senate conference committee agreed to include Foley's language in the appropriations bill.

``I am extremely pleased that the conferees concurred with my belief that the VA's plan to change the hospital to an outpatient clinic had to be permanently blocked,'' Foley said in a June 29, 1987, article in the Union-Bulletin.

It doesn't get much clearer than that.

If the VA moves forward to downgrade the Walla Walla hospital, the matter will go to court. And we anticipate the VA will lose.

So, the first question the VA must address _ and it must be addressed to Congress _ is the legality of its proposal.

But the VA probably doesn't want to go that route because the members of Congress aren't likely to rescind the 1987 order. A vote to downgrade the hospital would be portrayed as a vote against veterans, a bad position to take _ particularly at a time of war.

Nevertheless, if the VA wants to proceed with plans to downgrade, it must take the step.

If not, then drop it _ and then work to develop plans to refurbish the aging VA Medical Center facilities so that veterans in this region will get the medical care they have been promised.

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