Local news

VA center opens 24-hour department

Spokane’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center will reopen a 24-hour emergency department Sunday.

That’s one year to the day since Spokane veteran Clinton “Foxx” Fuller died after arriving at the VA hospital with shortness of breath, only to find the emergency department had closed for the day, five minutes earlier.

VA staff called an ambulance, which worked on Fuller in the parking lot and then transported the 83-year-old veteran to Deaconess Medical Center, where he died about an hour later.

VA hospital officials said they hadn’t had a fully staffed around-the-clock emergency room for years and defended their actions.

But Fuller’s death became a point of contention in last fall’s congressional campaign, and in December, the VA sent letters to 23,000 veterans in the area, telling them emergency care was not available after 4:30 p.m.

Starting Sunday, some care – although not full-blown care for life-threatening emergencies – will be provided.

The VA medical center at 4815 N. Assembly will offer a Level 4 Emergency Department 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Robert Van Bommel, chief of health care administration, said Friday. That means it will offer “care for non-urgent health matters, those which do not pose a life-threatening risk, but for which quick medical attention is required.”

Veterans with life-threatening emergencies should still go to an emergency room at one of the community’s other hospitals.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said the congressional delegation has been working with VA officials to restore the emergency services.

“It’s a positive step,” McMorris Rodgers spokeswoman Jill Strait said.

The Bush administration’s treatment of veterans and McMorris Rodgers’ record on VA issues were criticized by some veterans and her Democratic opponent, Peter Goldmark, after Fuller’s death. She defended her record but said the VA had done a poor job of communicating with veterans on what services were available and when.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said it took repeated meetings with VA officials in Washington, D.C., to persuade them of the need to expand emergency services at the Spokane facility. When the medical center got a new director, Sharon Helman, it was one of the first items of discussion, Murray said.

“Oftentimes I’ve seen the VA makes the easy budget decision, and only responds to a ‘loud and squeaky wheel,’ ” Murray said. “In this case, though, the facts backed up the squeaky wheel.”

VA officials held off announcing the change until this weekend for fear that veterans would show up needing services late at night or early in the morning before the Emergency Department was open.


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