MISSION, Ore. - No Walla Walla veterans services would be moved to the Tri-Cities, nor would all of them be contracted out under recommendations Friday from the Local Advisory Panel.
After a morninglong presentation at Wildhorse Resort & Casino, followed by about three hours of sometimes intense public testimony, members of the LAP said the message was clear: Veterans want to continue to receive services in Walla Walla.
But whether the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gets the message remains to be seen.
Of seven possible options for the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the panel voted to pursue three for further study.
The three include continuation of the current baseline operation; contracting out for inpatient and nursing home care and construction of a new outpatient and inpatient mental health center; and construction of a whole new facility at the 88-acre property.
Those options will be explored by consultants at federally contracted firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the agency may also choose to pursue other options not endorsed by the LAP, said panel member Duane Cole, Walla Walla's city manager.
While the LAP - an 11-member federally appointed panel made up of local government, business and education officials, and VA representatives from across the state - advises PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm can also independently recommend options to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, Cole said.
Nicholson will ultimately make the decision as to what will happen in Walla Walla as the federal VA moves to streamline its operations in an overhaul of the national health-care system.
Along with nearly 40 others in the crowd, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Gordon Smith, R-Ore.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., testified in a letter to the LAP that the need for rural VA health care is stronger than ever.
"While some in the VA claim that the need for the facility in Walla Walla has decreased, there is evidence to the contrary," the letter stated.
According to the senators, reports have been made that Veterans Integrated Service Network 20, the local VA service area, has seen twice the national average in utilization.
"As more American troops come home from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, those numbers will grow," the letter said.
The process of developing a plan continued to confound some of the seven LAP members who attended Friday's hearing. Without knowing whether capacity exists to contract for certain services, it's difficult to know whether that's an option worth exploring, panelists said.
Several in the audience urged the LAP to keep those inconsistencies in mind - as well as the need for veterans health care - as they move forward.
"Don't let Pricewaterhouse-Coopers redefine the task and don't let them get away with unsubstantiated assertions," said Walla Walla City Councilwoman Barbara Clark.
Fellow Councilman Jerry Cummins told LAP members that above all else, accessible health care should remain their top priority.
"Veterans health is a promise to be kept," he said. "Not a bottom line to be delivered."
OPTIONS PROPOSED BY PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS
(Those supported for further study by the Local Advisory Panel are in boldface type.):
Option 1: Continuation of the baseline operation with no changes to facilities or programs, but accounting for projected utilization changes, and assuming same or better quality, and necessary improvements for a safe, secure and modern health care environment.
Option 2: Contract for inpatient medicine, psychiatric and nursing home care, and Psychiatric Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program. Expand ambulatory and outpatient mental health services at Walla Walla in new construction on the VA campus, currently occupied by the football field and surface parking.
Option 3: Contract inpatient medicine and nursing home care; construct new ambulatory care, outpatient and inpatient mental health and Psychiatric Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program at Walla Walla and Community-Based Outpatient Clinics.
Option 4: Contract for all services with local, regional Walla Walla providers and other VA medical centers. Vacate the campus in phased process and make entire campus available for non-VA re-use or redevelopment.
Option 5: Construct new inpatient psychiatric and residential rehab and outpatient facilities, and contract as-needed for capacity above need for 2013 requirement. Contract with regional providers for inpatient medicine and nursing home. Phased construction of new facilities on the campus in consolidated location on the campus. All remaining portions of the campus would be available for non-VA re-use or redevelopment.
Option 6: Construct new inpatient psychiatric, Psychiatric Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, and ambulatory care and outpatient mental health in the Tri-Cities area. Contract with local/regional providers for inpatient medicine and nursing home care. Upon conclusion, Building 74 would be renovated on the Walla Walla campus to retain ambulatory care/outpatient mental health onsite as a Community-Based Outpatient Clinic. Remaining portions of the campus would be available for non-VA re-use/redevelopment.
Option 7: Contract with local community providers for inpatient medicine and nursing home care. Construct new inpatient mental health and Psychiatric Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program in the Tri-Cities area. Ambulatory care and outpatient mental health will be retained on the Walla Walla VA site as a Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in new construction. Remaining portions of the campus would be available for non-VA re-use/redevelopment.