Local VA study delay worries some

Others feel the longer the process takes, the better off the hospital may be.

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Is the latest delay in the study of Walla Walla's veterans hospital a negative sign for the future of services here? At least one member of the Federal Advisory Panel selected to help in the study process wonders what is taking so long and why it is so difficult to get information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

``We're not getting answers from D.C.,'' said Alice Thomsen, a member of the Federal Advisory Commission and commander of the Blue Mountain Veterans Coalition, a group representing the area's various service agencies.

``I have the feeling that we're being set up to make it fail,'' she said.

But fellow commission member Duane Cole says the longer the process takes, the better off the hospital may be.

``The more time, the greater opportunity to clarify the issues and make sure when we get up and speak as a local community and a local area we've got something they can support,'' said Cole, who is also city manager of Walla Walla.

A hearing on the future of services at the Jonathan M.

Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center was supposed to be held in the July/August timeframe. But PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm gathering information on the facility, has rescheduled the hearing for late September with no explanation as to why.

With two more hearings expected after that one, it is unclear how the timeline for the project will be affected.

``I, for one, have definitely not gotten an answer,'' Thomsen said.

Nor has Cole. But he said the reason for the change could have something to do with the VA's discovery it underestimated the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in need of care.

As those numbers are clarified, a stronger case may be built to retain services at the Wainwright facility, Cole said.

``I know this is taking some time and people want clarity, but I am optimistic that the results will be positive,'' Cole said. ``The discovery of the inaccuracy of the VA's actuarial estimates of future use of VA facilities in the country helps Walla Walla's position.

We've been saying for two years that their numbers are not accurate.''Advocates for the local VA facility have been crunching such numbers over the last year and a half. In early 2004, the medical facility was slated for a major overhaul under a recommendation by the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Commission.

As part of a strategy to realign VA services with the moving populations of veterans, CARES recommended contracting out the inpatient, psychiatry and nursing home care at Walla Walla's medical center and moving outpatient care to another location.

But veterans, hospital and other health-care employees and local government officials argued that not enough services existed to absorb the change.

So further study was ordered, and Pricewater-houseCoopers was hired to work as consultant on the project. The first hearing on the matter was held one year later.

But at that meeting, members of the 11-person Federal Advisory Panel said data projections by the federal VA were based on 2002 numbers from before the conflicts overseas began.

PricewaterhouseCoopers was to have reported back to the panel with updated information. So far, nothing has been reported, Cole and Thomsen said.

Meanwhile, the waiting list at the Wainwright facility continues to grow in the face of federal budget shortfalls, hospital officials have reported.

Now as part of a new strategy to preserve services at the facility, Thomsen is hoping for another kind of numbers project: increased enrollment.

She's encouraging all veterans in the area to enroll in the VA health-care system, whether they intend to use the services or not. The hope is that the VA will see how many veterans could use the system.

That kind of data will make the best case for a VA hospital in Walla Walla, Thomsen said.

``This VA hospital has more going on, more problems in its architectural schematics and seismic code. But the staff has been able to provide quality care,'' she said.

``Something here is working. Why is Washington, D.C., not listening to this?''

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