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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘VA will spare no expense’ to preserve staff and services in Spokane and Walla Walla, Veterans Affairs official tells McMorris Rodgers

The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, photographed Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs “will spare no expense” to maintain staff and services at VA hospitals in Spokane and Walla Walla, an official told Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers after the Spokane Republican raised concerns about budget problems tied to a computer system being tested in the Inland Northwest.

In a June 23 letter obtained by The Spokesman-Review, Patricia Ross, the VA’s assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs, told McMorris Rodgers the department would provide extra funding to address shortfalls at both Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center and Walla Walla’s Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center.

“I assure you that any budget issues at the Mann-Grandstaff VAMC and Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VAMC will not result in staff or service reductions,” Ross wrote, using the acronym for VA medical center. “VA is taking steps to ensure these facilities are appropriately funded and that services available to Veterans are not impacted.”

The response follows the warning made by Mann-Grandstaff’s director, Robert Fischer, to employees in May that the Spokane hospital would need to reduce its workforce due to a projected budget deficit of more than $35 million, caused in part by the impact of a new electronic health record system the VA launched in 2020 at Mann-Grandstaff and its affiliated clinics across the region. After VA Secretary Denis McDonough delayed the system’s rollout over problems that emerged in Spokane, the deployment resumed in Walla Walla in March 2022.

After The Spokesman-Review reported on Fischer’s email to hospital supervisors, McMorris Rodgers wrote a letter to McDonough on May 24, asking the VA secretary to commit to using funds Congress already had allocated for the system’s deployment to prevent any staff cuts in Spokane or Walla Walla. In May, the VA announced a modified contract with the company behind the system, Oracle Cerner, weeks after halting the system’s nationwide rollout due to ongoing problems.

In her letter to McMorris Rodgers, Ross said the VA had provided more than $153 million in additional funding “to cover budget needs” at Mann-Grandstaff – including the impacts of the Oracle Cerner system – since the 2016 fiscal year. McMorris Rodgers said she had a “productive conversation” with McDonough on June 21.

In the current fiscal year, Ross said, the department would give the Spokane hospital $6.2 million to cover lost revenue, with $4.7 of that money coming from the VA’s Northwest regional office and $1.5 million from the Veterans Health Administration, which manages VA health care. The VA would provide $2.7 million to the Walla Walla hospital for the same reason, Ross said.

“Mann-Grandstaff VAMC has not been asked to cut staff or reduce services to Veterans to mitigate any effects of the deficit,” Ross wrote. “Every VA facility must assess how to provide the best care to Veterans by providing an appropriate and sustainable plan to manage and operationalize safe and efficient staffing levels.”

After the director of the regional office visited Mann-Grandstaff at the end of May, a VA spokesman said the Spokane hospital had been asked to develop a “strategic plan” for its future. Such a plan would need to account for the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Oracle Cerner system, which continues to limit the number of patients each health care provider can see.

So far in the fiscal year that began in October 2022, Mann-Grandstaff had hired 122 employees, 55 of whom are in “critical occupations” the VA has prioritized, Ross said. She did not say how many employees had left the hospital during that period.