VA: No halt to services at Walla Walla Hospital

Principi, Perlin vow to maintain health-care services at the medical center until a study is completed.

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A study over the next seven months will help determine the future of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

At a press conference late this morning, officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said they will work with the local community to develop a plan for the 1858 facility and its services.

"The commitment is absolutely clear that inpatient care, outpatient care, mental health services and nursing home services will be available."

"The secretary stands behind a commitment to veterans - veterans in this part of the country," said Jonathan Perlin, the VA's acting undersecretary of health.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi has commissioned a comprehensive study to determine how to improve the environment of care in Walla Walla while maximizing VA resources. While the study is conducted, the medical center will remain open.

"The VA will not interrupt services at current facilities until we can provide alternate care at new sites of comparable quality.... The VA will continue to include veterans and the community as a part of that process," Principi said at a press conference in Las Vegas today.

The study, which will be conducted by Leslie Burger, director of the region's Veterans Integrated Service Network 20, is due no later than Jan. 1, 2005.

"We're extremely happy with the results we heard. It gives us a reprieve," said Walla Walla City Councilman Jerry Cummins. "I think the ultimate goal is to sit down and develop a plan for a modern medical facility."

Cummins was in Washington D.C. with a local coalition, rallying legislators for support of expanding U.S. Highway 12. He and other local officials met Thursday with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Despite the good news, Cummins said a tremendous amount of work lies ahead.

"I don't think we can sit back on our laurels," he said. "We still have an aging facility we need to do something with."

The medical center had been slated for a mission change under a recommendation from the VA-appointed Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Commission. The commission had proposed contracting out, where appropriate, for inpatient services, psychiatry and nursing home care, and subsequently moving outpatient services to another location.

Those recommendations were part of a national overhaul of the VA's health-care system. But on Thursday, the Bush administration announced further study is required before changes are made at the local medical center.

The news pleased proponents of the local VA, many of whom said the CARES Commission had not gathered enough information about it in the first place.

"I feel like I had an anvil just lifted off my shoulders," said Ron Fry, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for Washington state. "I believe we're going to work together to get a lot more done."

Fry said he believes the decision to save the VA was made because of efforts by legislators, veterans and local officials to push for the services. With no other place to get mental health care in town, Walla Walla would not have been able to absorb the loss, he said.

Alice Bailey, commander of the Milton-Freewater VFW, said Thursday she's "ecstatic."

"It's been worth every minute and effort we've put in it to come to this point," Bailey said.

She said the Blue Mountain Veterans Coalition is "not going to stop at this. We want to be involved as much as we possibly can going on from here."

Kathleen Obenland, St. Mary Medical Center director of public affairs, said the hospital supports the proposed comprehensive study and long-range plan.

"We're pleased that they are going to step back and take more time to examine the medical needs of the veterans in the area," Obenland said this morning.

Veterans and employees have said they hope that's what comes of this, but many remain cautiously optimistic. Services at the local medical center have been threatened in various forms over the years.

Louis Gonzales, a hospital employee and representative of American Federation of Government Employees Local 181, said he hopes this study will strengthen the VA's commitment to this facility.

"The VA has failed to really fully fund the WW hospital for years," Gonzales said.

He worries while the study is in place, funding for the facility will be up in the air.

"One piece that concerns us is when a facility is put in this study limbo, funding can sometimes decrease," he said.

He'd like to see the site maintained, especially for the sake of nursing home residents.

The 66-bed hospital provides medical care at its 84-acre site for nearly 13,000 veterans a year. According to the VA, about 69,000 veterans live in the hospital's 42,000-square-mile service area spanning Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

The commission's original recommendation called for contracting several inpatient services. But with few alternatives in the community for nursing home care and virtually no mental health care facilities, Walla Walla officials feared those contracts would be sent out of town.

While Perlin reiterated the need to maintain the hospital's mission during the study, he said the site's historic bricks and mortar were not as important as ensuring long-term health care and service delivery for the veterans. Referring to the aging conditions of the buildings, Perlin said it would be better to spend the money on new doctors and health care professionals than infrastructure in the aging facility.

"At the end of the day, buildings don't provide care, people do," Perlin said.

Reporters Terry McConn and Kathy Korengel contributed to this story.

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