Battle to keep local VA facility looks to be over

That's important for veterans in the region and his community

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It appears as if the long battle to save the local VA hospital is over.

President Obama signed the $70 million authorization to renovate parts of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center and to build a new 66,000-square-foot outpatient clinic on the grounds.

This project means the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to have a major presence in this community for decades to come. That is good for the local economy, and — more importantly — it means thousands of veterans throughout Southeastern Washington, Northeastern Oregon and Idaho will continue to have access to the quality medical care they’ve earned.

The VA under several presidents has made moves to close the Wainwright facility and force veterans to Spokane, Portland or Seattle for care. We have thought that approach was wrong.

So, too, have our elected representatives in Congress, Democrats and Republicans. The U.S. representatives from the 5th Congressional District — Former House Speaker Tom Foley, former Rep. George Nethercutt and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — have worked with Sen. Patty Murray to put pressure on the VA to do the right thing.

More than 22 years ago the top officials at what was then called the U.S. Veterans Administration were intent on closing Walla Walla’s VA medical center.

Foley, who was then House majority leader, used his considerable political muscle to push through a prohibition against downgrading the Walla Walla medical center from a full-service hospital.

In 2004, VA officials once again put Wainwright in the cross hairs. This time is was Murray, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, who used her political clout. She held a committee hearing in Walla Walla on the potential closure.

Murray was able to get a reprieve and over the past five years there’s been ups and downs in the struggle to get a clear victory that would ensure a continued presence in Walla Walla. Murray joined forces with Nethercutt and then McMorris Rodgers, as well as her Senate colleague Maria Cantwell, to hold VA officials accountable.

Three years ago it was announced a four-story clinic was to be built on the local VA grounds, but those plans didn’t have any dollars behind them.

Last week’s authorization of those funds makes it almost a certainty the clinic will come to fruition. It’s all a clear signal that the VA will continue to have a presence in this region and this community. This good news is welcome in the wake of the current turmoil over the possible loss of jobs at the penitentiary.

Even so, our elected officials and community leaders can’t rest with this victory. The VA grounds have the potential to house even more services for veterans.

But for now we are pleased that $70 million has been authorized and construction will begin at the Walla Walla facility.

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