VA panel: Forecast doesn't add up

Members of a group studying the local hospital's future say the VA's central office based projections of local needs on old data that likely overlooked crucial information.

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`We have done our service, and I would be remiss not to say the U.S. government would be a failure if it didn't continue theirs.'

GAYLEN HICOCK

U.S. Army veteran, on the possibility of a reduction in services at Walla Walla's VA

An analysis of health-care demands predicts fewer veterans living in the Walla Walla area over the next two decades.

But the figures presented at a public meeting Wednesday don't add up to members of a Local Advisory Panel tapped to study future needs for the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The numbers are expected to help the panel make recommendations to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on services at Walla Walla's VA.

However, the projections furnished by the VA's central office were based on 2003 data that LAP members said likely didn't take into account numbers of area troops shipped overseas since then or the Northwest's delicate economy.

``It seems to me that is a huge variable as it relates to access or care for our veterans,'' Jim Kuntz, executive director of the Port of Walla Walla and a member of the LAP, said during the morning session.

The VA's population projection shows the number of area vets is expected to drop 15 percent by 2023 _

`presumably reducing the need for certain services at the VA Medical Center.

According to information presented, the number of enrolled veterans in this market was 17,907 in 2003. By 2013, the VA projects a 6 percent decrease to 16,896; in 2023, that number is expected to fall to 15,294.

Although the population of World War II veterans is likely to decline, those at the meeting said there's no way to tell how many will be replaced by those in Iraq or Afghanistan. Furthermore, as the Vietnam-era veterans begin to see more age-related ailments, more may enroll in the VA program, several people noted.

Kuntz and other members of the LAP said the figures must be updated to make reasonable recommendations about the medical center's services and campus.

``The numbers were weak that were presented,'' said Walla Walla City Manager and LAP member Duane Cole after the daylong meeting in the VA theater. ``They should be excellent.''They should also account for the Pacific Northwest having some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and changes in Washington and Oregon's health plans, which could motivate more veterans to enroll in the VA system, said Kuntz.

Those factors are already believed to be playing out in Washington's VA system. Tim Williams, LAP chairman and the director of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, said Seattle's VA has seen double the demand for services since the start of the fiscal year in October.

Similarly, Walla Walla's facility, which exists to serve the 69,000 veterans living in its 14-county service area, has seen such a jump in demands for services the hospital faces more than a $1 million budget deficit this year, officials reported.

Presentation of the figures started the first of what will be four public meetings on the Wainwright medical center.

Further research and meetings were ordered last year after public outcry over a recommendation to close Walla Walla's 88-acre VA campus.

The Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) Commission recommended contracting out inpatient, psychiatry and nursing home care and moving outpatient care to another location. The recommendation was part of a national realignment strategy to match VA services with the moving populations of veterans while reducing the estimated $1 million a day the VA pays nationwide to operate its facilities.

An estimated 200 people attended Wednesday's meeting _ either the morning session, afternoon session or the audio broadcast in the VA's chapel. Thirty-one people testified in front of the panel, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who through her role on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee helped to forestall implementation of the previous recommendation.

``The VA is struggling to deal with existing veterans, and I fear what will happen when tens of thousands of new veterans are added to this already-strained system,'' Murray said.

She reiterated previous findings that no alternative facilities exist in the area for substance-abuse programs, long-term care or mental health services.

``If we make it harder for veterans to seek care, in the end they will not get any care.

And that is unacceptable,'' Murray said.

Afterward, she met with members of the Community Task Force that conducted its own study, encouraging them to submit their own recommendation for a $48 million restructure at the VA.

She also implored the task force to ``push back'' at the VA, using the data presented to press the VA into updating its figures.

Roxeanne Sisemore, facility planner and public affairs officer at the medical center, said the numbers came from a nationwide model used for the study of this and 17 other facilities across the country.

The VA has contracted with consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct the studies.

Representatives from the company attended Wednesday's hearing, along with subcontractors from five agencies also working on the project.

Over the next year, PricewaterhouseCoopers will use the data to develop options for Walla Walla's VA.

Options can range from making no change at all to varying the services, eliminating some of the 28 buildings on the 1858 campus or constructing a new hospital.

The consultant will be advised by the 11-member Local Advisory Panel. But independently it will recommend up to six options for consideration to VA Secretary Jim Nicholson. With congressional approval, Nicholson will have final say in what happens to the facility.

Local advocates of the hospital say closure would have a devastating impact on the community _ not only because of the services provided to veterans, but also its contribution to the economy.

The hospital employs about 365 workers, Sisemore said.

Annual payroll is between $18 and $21 million. The 2005 budget is about $46.5 million.

But those numbers are the some of the only ones participants at Wednesday's meeting were sure of.

Based on the data presented at the meeting, members of the LAP, employees and veterans expressed concern over the accuracy.

Sandy Kerr, the hospital's hospice and spinal cord injury coordinator and representative of the National Federation of Federal Employees said the local hospital is about two months behind in entering its most recent data.

``I don't know if this process is going to be for us or against us,'' she said.

Advocates for the hospital called for more realistic data, vowing to act as watchguards throughout the process.

``We need to be sure that your drive is focusing on the health care of veterans before money,'' veteran Ron Fry, past state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the consulting team.

``We're going to watch you very closely.''

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