Two facilities avoid chopping block

Originally targeted for changes along with Walla Walla, the American Lake and Vancouver sites have been taken off the list.

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First there were three.

When word came last July that the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center was facing closure, Walla Walla was not alone. Similar cuts were proposed at VA facilities in Vancouver, Wash., and American Lake, near Tacoma.

But those facilities have since managed to avoid the chopping block. One reason: proximity to metropolitan areas, said Shay Hancock, a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Shoreline).

In a meeting with local officials in March, Hancock said defending those facilities has been easier than rallying for Walla Walla's because they draw patients from large populations.

``The American Lake facility should never have been on the closure list to begin with,'' Hancock said.

There, the VA hospital makes up half of the VA's Puget Sound Health Care System. The other piece is the Seattle VA medical center.

Built in 1923, the American Lake hospital cares for more than 46,000 veterans annually and employs about 750 staff members, according to figures reported in the Tacoma News Tribune.

As for Vancouver's facility, the county was able to capitalize on its ability to alleviate congestion at the neighboring VA medical center in Portland.

The Vancouver division was integrated with Portland's campus in 1980. In 1998, the current 72-bed facility was built at a cost of more than $30 million.

In its recommendation forwarded to the Department of Veterans Affairs in February, the CARES commission said Vancouver's capacity allows Portland to expand its specialty and tertiary care capacity and provide service for multiple markets.

Furthermore, it said Vancouver provides rehabilitation, extended care services and other programs the Portland facility does not offer.

The commission recommended maintaining the current mission of the facility while reducing the campus footprint by demolishing old structures to reduce operating costs.

Demolition of the structures would free up 19.6 acres on the campus.

Despite Walla Walla's rural setting, Murray and U.S. Rep.

George Nethercutt, R-Wash., have continued to rally on behalf of its facility.

Their fight to save the VA's local services has included letter-writing, testifying, lobbying and convincing federal VA officials to visit the area and hear from local people.

Although Walla Walla's VA serves a smaller number of patients _ about 12,000 annually _ the ripple effect of closing inpatient and psychiatry operations will be felt throughout 14 counties that feed clients to the facility each year, legislators say.

If Walla Walla is included on a closure list, the chance of ever getting a new facility _ however large _ would be just about impossible, Hancock said in March.

``If Walla Walla goes on a closure list, trying to get a new facility in Walla Walla is going to be very difficult,'' he said.

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