Sen. Murray 'concerned' about possible cut to Walla Walla vets home grant

MATT BENOIT MURROW NEWS SERVICEMarch 12, 2014 

Federal money for a Walla Walla veterans home remains uncertain even after U.S. Sen. Patty Murray raised her concerns at a budget hearing Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Murray, D-Wash., told Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel she was "very concerned" that budget requests have proposed reducing grants for state-run veterans homes.

"These veterans have been waiting a very long time for this facility," Murray said. "We have more than a thousand veterans who need care."

The facility would be a complex of small houses on the Walla Walla Veterans Affairs campus and include a skilled nursing home providing long-term care to honorably discharged veterans and surviving spouses.

It would add 93 jobs and serve 10 counties, including Benton and Franklin counties, with a combined population of more than 50,000 veterans.

Murray questioned whether the veterans homes were being correctly prioritized.

"How are we going to deal with these veterans homes with declining budgets?" she asked. "As members of Congress, we need to know what the need is, and then we need to figure out how to fund it rather than just being told everything is OK."

Petzel said funding alternatives haven't been fully examined, but options include using the previous year's budget to pay for building the homes.

Despite a May 2013 tribal blessing ceremony, construction on the Walla Walla project has yet to begin after a $21.8 million VA grant for the project was pulled after a longer than expected environmental review.

Heidi Audette, communications director for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, said land for the facility also is still waiting to be transferred from federal to state hands.

The land must be owned by the state before federal money can be distributed to the project.

An existing water tower also must be replaced before construction can begin, Audette said.

The state veterans website lists late fall 2014 as a likely date for construction to begin.

Support for the home in the state Legislature also faltered, as a bill from Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla-Walla, passed the Senate unanimously before dying in the House for a second consecutive year.

The bill would have established the Walla Walla home as Washington Soldiers' Home, and also widened eligibility requirements for admission to state veterans homes to include parents whose children died while serving in the military.

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