VA secretary to pay visit to Walla Walla

Jim Nicholson plans a January trip to the area.

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U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson will tour Walla Walla's veterans hospital in a January visit to the community.

The trip was announced Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., who extended the invitation several weeks ago.

Although details have not yet been determined, McMorris hopes the firsthand experience will help Nicholson realize the importance of the facility as he decides the fate of the medical center.

``When you think about the future of the VA facility and how we're going to best be serving the veterans in this region, I just think it's really important that he have that firsthand knowledge of where Walla Walla is and really what we're asking of the veterans if they have to travel,'' McMorris said Wednesday by telephone.

Walla Walla City Manager Duane Cole, who sits on an advisory panel for the hospital, said Wednesday he is excited at the prospect of a visit.

``I think this is an opportunity for us to really show off what a rural veterans health-care facility is all about,'' Cole said.

Nicholson made a similar visit in July to the VA hospital in Waco, Texas. But Cole and McMorris were hesitant Wednesday to say whether the visit to Walla Walla means services won't change.

``It's a little premature,'' McMorris said. ``But I take it as a good sign.''McMorris' invitation to Nicholson was not the first to come out of Walla Walla. But it is the first to be accepted.

Last December, the Walla Walla City Council sent a letter to Nicholson just as he was set to succeed outgoing Secretary Anthony Principi.

City officials believed a personal tour would strengthen the case for the Jonathan M.

Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

As part of a nationwide study by the federally appointed Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Commission, changes recommended at the hospital called for contracting inpatient, psychiatry and nursing home care and relocating outpatient care.

The CARES process was intended to better align services with populations of veterans, while at the same time cutting the estimated $1 million a day the federal VA spent maintaining underused facilities.

But the plan for Walla Walla sparked outcry from many veterans in Walla Walla's 42,000-square-mile service area.

Along with about 17 other VA facilities in the country, Walla Walla's was selected for further study in May 2004.

Since then, two public hearings on the facilities and services have been conducted with consulting firm Price-waterhouseCoopers, which will make recommendations to the secretary.

A third hearing is expected to be held before the end of the year.

While Pricewaterhouse-Coopers studies options, McMorris said the visit with Nicholson provides an opportunity for the community to present its plan.

``When you consider the facility was on the list to be closed at one time and the future is uncertain, I just think we should be doing everything possible to reach out to the decision makers,'' she said.

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