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Veterans, local officials push back against VA plan to downsize Walla Walla medical center

Walla Walla fighting federal plans to downsize VA hospital as part of sweeping changes to revamp the nation's health care system for veterans.  (Courtesy)
Walla Walla fighting federal plans to downsize VA hospital as part of sweeping changes to revamp the nation's health care system for veterans. (Courtesy)

WASHINGTON – After the Department of Veterans Affairs released a sweeping plan last week to revamp the nation’s biggest health care system, veterans and officials in Walla Walla have pushed back on a proposal that would downsize the city’s VA hospital.

The plan, mandated by Congress as part of a 2018 law, recommends keeping only primary care and mental health services at the Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, moving other services housed there to larger facilities in Spokane and Richland. Nabiel Shawa, Walla Walla’s city manager, said local officials were “very disappointed” by the proposal.

“If the federal government really believes in rural America, small towns, and keeping the quality of life that’s so precious here, they need to keep their investments going in facilities such as the (VA),” Shawa said. “While we see the report, we’re not going to stand by idly.”

Shawa said the city government plans to work with local elected officials and members of Congress to mount a “long-haul fight to shut down this report’s recommendation and keep our long-term, historic veterans’ support services and facilities intact.”

The resistance in Walla Walla is a sign of the long road ahead for the VA as it works to modernize a network of 171 hospitals and more than 1,100 clinics that were built an average of 60 years ago. Many of the large VA medical centers, like Walla Walla’s, were built at a time when the U.S. health care system relied more heavily on inpatient treatment. With modern medicine allowing more veterans to go home the same day they receive treatment, some VA hospitals are largely empty while others – in states like Arizona to which more veterans have moved – are overwhelmed.

The full set of recommendations released Monday proposes closing a total of 17 VA medical centers nationwide while building 14 new ones and 140 new clinics. It also encourages veterans, especially in rural areas, to seek care from private providers.

While the plan doesn’t recommend closing Walla Walla’s medical center altogether, it proposes reducing it to an outpatient clinic similar to those in Coeur d’Alene and Wenatchee.

Along with ending surgeries and other inpatient treatment at the Walla Walla hospital, the plan proposes relocating the residential rehabilitation treatment program housed there to Spokane, where such a program doesn’t exist.

Jennifer Glynn, founder and executive director of the Doughty Home for Veteran Women in Walla Walla, said that would likely spell the end of local group homes like hers that often house veterans when they leave the VA rehab program.

“I would have to shut it down,” Glynn said. “We have a lot of veterans that come through the rehab here and stay in this community. One of my concerns is that if we move the rehab, there goes all the veteran housing.

“Walla Walla is a small community that already has housing in place for veterans that come out of that rehab, and so there’s not going to be any resources for veterans here if we downsize this VA.”

The recommendations from VA Secretary Denis McDonough now go to a commission, appointed by the president, that will hold public hearings before presenting its recommendations to the president in early 2023. Congress will then have a chance to review the proposed changes, but lawmakers can only accept or reject all the changes together.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., issued a rare bipartisan joint statement March 15, calling the recommended downsizing of the Walla Walla hospital “deeply concerning” and noting that thousands of veterans in rural Eastern Washington rely on the facility.

“We should be rolling out the red carpet for veterans, not pulling it out from under them,” the two lawmakers said. “Reducing or eliminating care options at the Walla Walla VA would be a disservice to the men and women in our communities who sacrificed so much for our country.

“We are eager to have a conversation with VA leadership to better understand their recommendations, review the data the administration used to develop these recommendations, and make our stance clear. In the meantime, ensuring veterans have access to quality health care, when and where they need it most, will remain our top priority.”

Trina Parrish, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars district commander, said representatives from McMorris Rodgers and Murray’s offices attended a meeting in Walla Walla on Tuesday at which veterans expressed concerns about losing services at the medical center, especially because it can be hard to travel to Spokane or the Tri-Cities.

“Even though we’re a rural area, we have a lot of veterans in this area,” Parrish said. “And one of our problems down here is the homeless veterans and getting them housed. So if we’re downsizing, it’s going to hurt the veterans because we’ll have to go travel farther. How do we travel out of our little valley in the wintertime?”

Relocating services to Spokane and Richland would serve a larger number of veterans than having them in the less-populous Walla Walla area, the VA report says. According to an assessment of VA’s Inland Northwest market, about 5,000 veterans enrolled in VA health care services live within a one-hour drive of Walla Walla, while more than 9,100 live within an hour of Richland and nearly 29,000 within an hour of Spokane.

Shawa recalled how the community and its elected officials fought to preserve the Wainwright medical center when VA tried to close it two decades ago and said they intend to do the same now.

“This city, in the early 2000s, came together and fought valiantly when the federal government was threatening to close down the entire VA facility in Walla Walla,” he said. “Thanks to the leadership of our congressional officials, in particular Sen. Patty Murray, it was saved and approximately $100 million has been invested there since. It’s working well, it’s a great facility, it’s got great history, it’s modern, and it needs to stay open.

Glynn said she was also looking to Murray, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate and a member of the Senate VA Committee, to fight the proposal.

“It’s just an all-in-all bad idea,” she said. “I know, in 2002, Sen. Murray fought very hard to keep our VA open in 2002 and I’m really hoping that she does the same now.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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