Murray visits Walla Walla VA facility

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldApril 15, 2014 

WALLA WALLA -- The Walla Walla VA Medical Center went from being scheduled for closure to opening a $71.4 million outpatient clinic in less than a decade.

But more needs to be done to assist veterans at the campus, said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, during a visit there Tuesday.

Murray credited veterans and area officials for starting a task force and packing meetings to keep the facility open after the Department of Veterans Affairs announced its closure in 2004, fighting a VA bureaucracy "that seemed to want to starve this facility."

"This is a community where people don't give up on what they believe in," Murray told an audience of 200 people outside the entrance to the 67,000-square-foot building. "It's a community that's willing to fight to make sure veterans get the care they need."

Murray recounted how they helped convince the VA to keep the facility open, making sure veterans wouldn't have to travel to Seattle or Spokane for care, then got funding for the outpatient clinic in 2009. She then took a break from the wind outside to tour the facility, which features an outpatient surgery area, occupational and physical therapy and care specifically for women. It also boasts a large second-floor outdoor atrium.

"The big advancements are in the area of tele-health," said Walla Walla VA Director Brian Westfield, who moments earlier showed Murray a room where patients can be treated by a doctor in Seattle. "They can contact us via tele-technology, and we can access specialty services via tele-technology for the veteran."

The outpatient clinic is a welcome site for veterans in the area, said Walla Walla Air Force veteran Don Schack, who served in the military for more than 30 years and on the Walla Walla VA's task force for 10 years.

"It's a thousand times ahead of what we had before," he said. "I remember this place when I was stationed at the base. It was basically a sanitorium."

The first phase of the remaking of the campus came when the VA opened a 36-bed residential rehabilitation unit in spring 2013 for veterans dealing with substance abuse.

More is planned. Westfield said the VA will open a 20,000-square-foot building next year to house dental, optometry and other services. Another 40 homes for homeless veterans and their families is planned, with one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

But an 80-bed veterans home, to be located in a complex of small houses where the water tower stands on the campus, remains elusive. Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed a bill authorizing the state Department of Veterans Affairs to operate the facility, but it has been unable to secure federal funding.

"I'm working with the state VA and the local community to get the (federal) VA to step up to the plate," Murray said after a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

A $21.8 million federal grant for the facility was pulled after a longer-than-expected environmental review, which led to the project missing a deadline to transfer land for the home from the federal to the state veterans administrations, state Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla has said.

The home will include a skilled nursing facility for long-term care for veterans and spouses of veterans who have died. It would serve 10 counties, including Benton and Franklin counties, which has a population of more than 50,000 veterans.

Schack joked that he would like to see the building open before he needs to use it.

"We've got a lot of things yet to come, but I'm almost positive that one of these days we'll see that building down there," he said.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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