Local officials: Streamline without job, service cuts

A master plan for the 84-acre site could benefit the veterans and the community, a local official says.

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Officers quarters. Long-term housing. Lodging for homeless veterans.

Walla Walla officials have numerous ideas about what to do with the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

But they say no one has asked for them.

Officials say they want to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to find a more efficient way to operate the local VA medical center.

A federal commission has recommended closing Walla Walla's VA campus, contracting, where appropriate, for acute inpatient, psychiatry and nursing home care and relocating outpatient services.

The proposal is part of a nationwide overhaul of the VA system. The makeover will downsize underused facilities and align its services where the veterans are.

But Walla Walla officials say there are other ways to streamline the system without displacing workers or changing the way health care is delivered.

One suggestion: The federal government could build a new facility to consolidate the services it provides in multiple buildings on the current campus, said Jim Kuntz, executive director of the Port of Walla Walla.

``Why can't we do some master-planning on that 84-acre site?'' Kuntz said. ``I'd like to see a modern medical facility there on a footprint the VA can use.''Another way to utilize more of the 28 buildings onsite would be opening up the pre-Civil War houses as Officers Row for active duty military personnel. Residents would be military recruiters living in town and the head of the local district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who receives a living stipend from the government.

The biggest obstacle, officials say, is the cost of removing lead paint and asbestos in the buildings, as well as bringing them up to seismic code and updating electrical wiring.

``We've got a fundamental problem here,'' Kuntz said. ``An aging, old facility.'' Walla Walla City Manager Duane Cole said with help from federal funding and grants, the historic buildings _ dating back to 1858 _ could be saved and converted to apartments, an assisted living facility or resort.

``We're all pretty smart out here.

And we all understand reasonably how to deliver health care,'' he said.

One way to do that would be to use other successful programs as models. Another way would be to develop more Community Based Outpatient Clinics.

The Millennium Health Care Act calls for establishment of more CBOCs. Washington state was slated for eight of them. Officials report only four have been established because of a lack of funding.

The CBOCs play a role in providing primary care. They help the major VA medical centers by relieving some of the backlog of patients waiting to be seen by doctors. Washington state's number of CBOCs is behind when compared to other states with smaller populations of veterans and more of the outpatient clinics. For example, in Minnesota, reportedly 23 CBOCs help serve the roughly 450,000 veterans living in the state versus four such clinics helping serve a population of more than 600,000 vets in Washington.

Montana has 10 CBOCs and only 106,000 veterans.

Some employees at the VA say they want the government to invest in the diverse campus it has in Walla Walla.

``They're trying to fix something that wasn't broke,'' said local VA employee Jim Bernasconi.''He said employees at the facility have worked hard to meet the needs of a diverse community. In recent years, a ``sweat lodge'' was opened on the facility for the ritual spiritual cleansings of the Native American population that uses the facility.

Overall, however, Walla Walla officials say something needs to be done to maintain the facilities, even if that means changing ownership.

In a report last year, CARES officials noted interest from the U.S.

Army Corps of Engineers to take over the quarters. According to the report, the Corps has a need for employee housing and would be willing to repair the buildings under construction requirements of the historical designations.

Cole said such solutions would have been brought to light had the Department of Veterans Affairs been more proactive in working with the local community.

``That reflects a problem I think we should resolve,'' he said. ``The culture of the VA is really closed.''But if the chance should arise that the VA would consider more input from local people, Cole said officials would be willing to put their heads together for the future of the site.

``There's just all sorts of opportunities,'' he said.

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