WASHINGTON – A proposal to cut services at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Spokane and Walla Walla appears dead after a bipartisan group of senators withdrew their support last week.
The group of senators – including Democrats Patty Murray of Washington and Jon Tester of Montana, who chairs the Senate VA Committee – announced June 27 they would block the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission process, an effort mandated by the Trump administration’s signature veterans bill to downsize the department’s nationwide network of clinics and hospitals.
As part of that process, VA Secretary Denis McDonough issued a set of recommendations in March that would have downsized Walla Walla’s VA hospital and ended inpatient services at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, effectively turning the hospital into a clinic that would need to refer patients to non-VA hospitals for serious problems. Across the United States, the proposal would have closed or completely rebuilt dozens of hospitals while building 14 new ones.
“As Senators, we share a commitment to expanding and strengthening modern VA infrastructure in a way that upholds our obligations to America’s veterans,” the group wrote in a letter to McDonough, adding that the VA chief’s recommendations “are not reflective of that goal, and would put veterans in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage, which is why we are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move forward.”
The group includes several Republicans, among them Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and both senators from South Dakota, Mike Rounds and John Thune. The top GOP member on the VA Committee, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, notably did not sign the letter.
The process has drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, spurred by local veterans who feared losing services they need. McDonough has also acknowledged that his recommendations were based on outdated data that didn’t adequately take account of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., sent her own letter to McDonough on June 30 to express her opposition to the process.
“I’ve said from the start that reducing or eliminating care options at the Spokane and Walla Walla VAs would be a disservice to the men and women in our communities who sacrificed so much for our country,” she said in a statement. “Stopping the AIR commission in its tracks was the first step in preventing their misguided recommendations from moving forward, but our work is far from over.”
McMorris Rodgers went on to say she would oppose any other VA restructuring effort that would take services away from Inland Northwest veterans, but it’s unclear if and how McDonough will propose a different approach to modernizing the department’s aging infrastructure.
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