(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) held an official field hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee at Walla Walla Community College, the latest step in her nine-month fight to keep the Administration from denying healthcare to men and women who have fought for our country.
Murray, the daughter of a World War II veteran, is the first veteran to serve on the Veterans Affairs Committee and represents Washington State's 670,000 veterans.
"From Day One, I have been absolutely opposed to this closure," Murray said. "Next year, I will become either the Chairman or the Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The VA is going to have to come before me and my committee, and I'm not going to forget how the veterans here in Walla Walla were treated."
In February, a VA commission recommended closing the Walla Walla Medical Center, which serves the region's 69,000 veterans.
As a member of the Committee, Murray requested the hearing so she can build an official record of veterans' healthcare needs in Walla Walla. She will take the information she gathered today directly to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Anthony Principi, and will again press him to keep the hospital open.
At the hearing, Murray displayed a copy of the letter she sent to Secretary Principi on July 24, 2003, in which she first spoke out against the closure. Holding the letter, Murray told the audience at the hearing, "When I first raised these concerns, one member of our state delegation even said it was premature and wrong to scare veterans. Well here we are, 9 months, 3 letters, and 4 hearings later. Your hospital is still on the closure list, and we still don't have the answers we need. I'm as frustrated as all of you, and that's why I've brought this official U.S. Senate hearing to Walla Walla."
Murray also said she won't be satisfied with vague pledges and promises.
"Administration officials keep telling us, 'Don't worry – nothing will close until alternative services are in place,'" she said. "Well I sit on the Appropriations Committee and on the Veterans Committee. I've looked at the budget. They have not requested a dime for new facilities in Walla Walla, and there are no major projects in the VA pipeline. If they close this hospital, they're not suddenly going to start putting money into this community. I've been at this long enough to know that President Reagan was right. You've got to 'trust, but verify.'"
At the hearing, Murray also released a new report, titled "Closure of Walla Walla VA Medical Facility: Effect on Veterans' Access to Mental Healthcare," that was prepared by the minority staff of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
The report concludes that:
- The Administration and the CARES Commission did not take into account the availability of non-VA mental health care when making recommendations to close the Walla Walla VA facility;
- The VA does not have a specific and detailed plan demonstrating the manner in which specialized mental health care would be provided to veterans currently receiving mental health services if the Walla Walla VA is closed;
- The Walla Walla VA offers specialized, integrated mental health care to the veterans that is not duplicated elsewhere in the community.
The full report can be found online at http://murray.senate.gov/veterans/vetreport.pdf
Citing the soldier's motto, "Leave no man behind," Murray said, "On battlefields from Normandy to Baghdad, our soldiers risk life and limb to ensure no one is left behind. On the battlefield, our soldiers keep that promise. When they come home, it's up to all of us to keep that promise. We can't abandon our veterans here at home. They fought for us, and now it's our turn to fight for them. No matter what happens today, this is not going away."
Senator Murray's Statement Follows:
I call this hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to order. I want to welcome all of you. Some of you have traveled a long way to be here to stand up for veterans in Southeastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho, and I thank you for coming. I’m going to present a transcript of our hearing to every member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and I want them to know that we have an impressive turnout today. Your presence here today helps us prove that the Walla Walla VA has deep and broad support. I want to give you an overview of why I’m here and what you can expect today.
But first, I want everyone to know where I’m coming from, because a lot of people couldn’t understand why I asked to join the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee 7 years ago. After all, no woman had ever served on the Veterans Committee before. For me, it’s very personal. During World War II, my dad was one of the first G.I.’s to land on Okinawa. He was injured, sent to a hospital in Hawaii, and then immediately sent back to Okinawa. Like many in our audience today, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
When I was in college at WSU, I asked to do my internship at the VA hospital in Seattle. I moved from Pullman to Seattle for the semester, rented a room, and spent my days in the psychiatric ward, working with veterans coming back from Vietnam. It was hard to watch what these young men my age were going through. On the street, a lot of people did not respect them. But inside the VA, I saw doctors, nurses, receptionists, and cafeteria workers who looked them in the eye, understood what they had gone through, showed them respect, and worked to help them heal.
Our veterans had the camaraderie of knowing they were not alone with their injuries – either mentally or physically. I know there’s a real difference between getting care with other veterans from VA doctors, and being contracted out to some other place, where you may be the only veteran. Anyone who knows me or my family knows why it’s such a personal issue for me and how honored I am to represent our state’s 670,000 veterans. So when I see a proposal from the VA to shut down one of our medical centers – with no study, no alternatives, and no plan – I speak up.
Here’s the first letter I sent to Secretary Principi last July. In fact, when I first raised these concerns, one member of our state delegation even said it was premature and wrong to scare veterans. Well here we are, 9 months, 3 letters, and 4 hearings later. Your hospital is still on the closure list, and we still don’t have the answers we need.
I’m as frustrated as all of you, and that’s why I’ve brought this official U.S. Senate hearing to Walla Walla. I know there have been forums and listening sessions here before, but today’s hearing is different. I know many of you have submitted detailed comments directly to the CARES Commission. You’ve gone to rallies and meetings and had many chances to speak out. You’ve certainly done your part. You’ve spoken, but I don’t think you’ve been heard.
Let me tell you how this hearing is different. Today we are building an official record that will be used by another group of decision-makers in Washington, D.C. -- the members of the United States Senate.
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs will make a decision on whether or not to accept the recommendations of the CARES Commission. As soon as I get back to Washington, D.C., I’m going to take the record we’re compiling here directly to Secretary Principi and urge him – once again – to save your hospital. Today, all of you here are helping me to make that case to the VA Secretary.
For our work to be legitimate, we have to follow the same rules that are used at hearings in the United States Senate. That means a roster of witnesses, strict time limits, and formal testimony that creates an official record.
My position on this is well known. I’ve been here several times, and from Day One, I have been absolutely opposed to this closure. From the moment this idea was announced, I’ve been skeptical of it. I have real concerns that this community has not been treated fairly. I have real concerns about what’s going to happen to the veterans who rely on the Walla Walla VA today and about the veterans who will come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and need care.
Our country made a promise to our veterans, and we’ve got to keep it. And I’m not going to be satisfied with vague pledges of support. If someone says, “Don’t worry - veterans will get substance abuse care locally.” I want to know the name of the facility. I want to know how many new people they can accommodate. And I want to know that they can provide the same level of care as the VA does today.
Administration officials keep telling us, “Don’t worry – nothing will close until alternative services are in place.”
Well I sit on the Appropriations Committee and on the Veterans Committee. I’ve looked at the budget. They have not requested a dime for new facilities in Walla Walla, and there are no major projects in the VA pipeline. If they close this hospital, they’re not suddenly going to start putting money into this community. I’ve been at this long enough to know that President Reagan was right. You’ve got to “trust, but verify.”
Our Focus Today
At this hearing, I want to get the facts on three questions. First, how will the proposed closure affect access to care? We already have access problems in our rural areas. The veterans who are served here already travel long distances. In my book, closing your hospital will only make it worse. Second, I want to know where and how veterans will get substance abuse, long-term care, and mental health services if the government takes away their hospital.
The nearest substance abuse center for veterans is 130 miles away in Yakima. Are we going make veterans drive 5 hours round trip to go their counseling sessions? There’s already a problem with long term care in this community. Over the past six months, two nursing care centers have closed. Where will our veterans get long-term care? And what about mental health care? The nearest VA facility is in Spokane three hours away. If we make it harder for veterans to seek care, we run the risk that they won’t get any care at all.
Finally, why have the clear and vocal concerns of this community been ignored by the CARES Commission? What impact will it have if they shut down one of the largest employers in the region?
So in closing, I want to get the facts and build a record that will help us—keep the facility open, and – if the VA closes it anyway – provide a detailed arsenal to use to ensure our veterans get comparable, accessible care. Many of you know the soldier’s motto that says, “Leave no man behind.” On battlefields from Normandy to Baghdad, our soldiers risk life and limb to ensure no one is left behind. On the battlefield, our soldiers keep that promise. When they come home, it’s up to all of us to keep that promise. We can’t abandon our veterans here at home. They fought for us, and now it’s our turn to fight for them. No matter what happens today, this is not going away.
Next year, I will become either the Chairman or the Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The VA is going to have to come before me and my committee, and I’m not going to forget how the veterans here in Walla Walla were treated.
How It Works
Let me explain how the hearing will work. Today, we will hear from three panels of witnesses. The first panel will be comprised of the VA’s representative, Dr. Leslie Burger, and the Directors of both Washington’s and Oregon’s State Department of Veterans Affairs. The second panel will give us an opportunity to hear from veterans. Our witnesses represent national and statewide veterans service organizations, including the VFW, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. We also have a VFW commander who can give us a perspective from the Native American community. The final panel will be made up of community leaders, a VA employee representative, and a member of the local healthcare community.
I’ll call on our first panel, each witness will have up to 5 minutes to present their testimony, and then I will ask them questions. When we’re done with each witness on the first panel, I’ll call the second and third panels. We have to follow the same rules as hearings in the United States Senate and that means we are not allowed to take testimony from the audience. I know that is frustrating, and here’s what I’m doing about it. If your concern or your opinion is not voiced today, I want you to jot it down for me. I will read it, and I will give it Secretary Principi.
If you give me an example of how your life would be different if this hospital is closed, be sure to tell me if I have your permission to use your name and example publicly to make the case in Washington, D.C. My staff has paper and pens for all of you, and if you don’t hear what you want us to know, please jot it down. I wish we could take comments straight from the floor. I did that at the VFW here a few months ago, and it was very helpful. But for our hearing to be legitimate and useful when I get back to Washington, D.C. we need to follow the same rules that are enforced at hearings in the U.S. Senate.
Before we move to our first group of witnesses, I want to acknowledge that my Senate colleagues Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon, and Senator Maria Cantwell from Washington have been tremendous allies in my effort to prevent a closure of this VA facility. Unfortunately, their schedules did not allow them to join us today, but they have sent staff to represent them, and I have their statements to introduce for the record. So, without objection Senator Cantwell and Senator Wyden will have their statements placed at the appropriate point in the record of this hearing. Let’s now hear from our first panel.