(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray today outlined her continued concerns following last week’s official Senate Veterans’ Affairs field hearing which she chaired in Walla Walla. In a letter to VA Secretary Anthony Principi, Murray strongly opposed the proposed closure of the Walla Walla veterans’ facility and voiced her support for a legal challenge.
“I remain concerned about contracting the service provided at the Walla Walla VA Medical Center; it is clear that private sector facilities in the area do not have the capacity to absorb the additional patient load. I am also concerned about the legal ramifications of the VA’s current position; if the plan to close this facility moves forward, I believe the VA will be met with a legal challenge, which I would support,” Murray wrote to Principi.
Murray’s hearing explored the VA’s circumvention of a 1987 law written by former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tom Foley, which was passed with the intention of preserving health care services at the Walla Walla VA facility indefinitely.
Murray also kept her promise to Walla Walla area veterans and service providers by passing their concerns on to VA Secretary Anthony Principi. At the April 12th hearing Murray pledged to take both the testimony of 15 panelists and the written concerns of all audience members back to D.C. and present them to Secretary Principi. Murray today included these audience comments in a separate letter to the VA Secretary.
Murray’s letter follows:
April 19, 2004
The Honorable Anthony Principi, Secretary
Department of Veterans’ Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Mr. Secretary:
I write to again express my opposition to closing the Jonathan M. Wainright Memorial VA Medical Center located in Walla Walla, Washington. The Walla Walla closure recommendation originated with the Department of Veterans Affairs and has now been accepted by the Commission on Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES).
As you are aware, I have opposed the Administration’s proposal to close the Walla Walla VA Medical Center from the moment the plan went public last year. Last week, in cooperation with the Chairman and Ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I chaired a field hearing in Walla Walla to explore health care for Southeast Washington veterans and the ramifications of your plan to close the local VA . VISN 20 officials, local veterans, and community leaders testified about the plan to close Walla Walla and its impact on veterans, the local healthcare delivery system, and the region’s economy.
The Senate hearing clearly illustrated that closing this facility will put accessible care out of the reach of the region’s veterans including the new generation of combat veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The hearing demonstrated that neither the VA, nor the CARES Commission, had been in contact with local health care providers to determine the community’s capacity to absorb certain patient loads. It was also clear that the local VISN director has reevaluated some of these capacity issues stating that, “something would have to be built,” to care for veterans with long-term and mental health care needs.
The hearing also discussed the legality of the VA’s attempt to circumvent PL100-71, which specifically prohibits changing the mission of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Walla Walla. I am aware that the VA’s General Counsel issued an opinion that the law “has no legal effect beyond fiscal year 1987.” However, you should be aware that a letter from the author of the legislation, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tom Foley, was introduced into the hearing’s official record. His letter stated that “Congressional intent at the time - and my intentions specifically for the Walla Walla Medical Center - was very clear. I acted to make health care available to veterans indefinitely at the Walla Walla Medical Center.” I have attached a copy of former Speaker Foley’s letter for your review.
It is my understanding that the VA provided a legal opinion to the CARES Commission justifying its closure recommendation. This opinion is highly suspect, particularly as the legal opinion followed the VA’s decision to seek Walla Walla’s closure. The legal issue was specifically raised in the VISN 20 market plan. It looks to me like the VA answered the question, committed to a course of action, and only then sought an opinion from the General Counsel.
I remain concerned about contracting out the service provided at the Walla Walla VA Medical Center; it is clear that private sector facilities in the area do not have the capacity to absorb the additional patient load. I am also concerned about the legal ramifications of the VA’s current position; if the plan to close this facility moves forward, I believe the VA will be met with a legal challenge, which I would support.
I am aware of the challenges you face and appreciate your commitment to caring for all of our nation’s veterans. I know that we share a commitment to all veterans and I look forward to working with you on improving the health care of those both in Washington state and across the country. However, without adequate alternatives available to veterans served by the Walla Walla VA Medical Center, I must renew my opposition to the closure of the Jonathan M. Wainright Walla Walla VA Medical Center.
For all of the reasons I have outlined to you over the past 10 months, and especially the issues highlighted at last week’s hearing, I urge you to reject the portion of the CARES Commission report calling for the closure of the Walla Walla VA Medical Center.
United States Senator
cc: Jonathan Perlin, Acting Under Secretary for Health
Dr. Leslie Burger, Director Veterans' Integrated Service Network (VISN) 20