This, noted Don Schack, is what “impossible” looks like.
He said it during his invocation Wednesday as an audience of about 175 people gathered for a groundbreaking at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center for a Walla Walla Veterans Home.
Schack is chairman of the Veterans Advisory Board and a member of the local task force that fought to keep the Walla Walla VA off a federal closure list in 2004. Back then, he said, it was difficult for many to embrace the idea the facility would be sustained and grow in the future.
That the campus would someday include the 66,000-square foot outpatient clinic opened in 2014 plus this 80-bed state VA nursing home for eligible veterans and their spouses seemed like an impossible dream.
“You are now seeing what ‘impossible’ looks like in the great city of Walla Walla,” Schack said.
It took some doing to make it happen, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reminded listeners. For more than a decade, Murray worked with veterans, community leaders and federal VA officials to push for funding for a veterans home in Eastern Washington. In 2014, she helped secure $23 million in federal funding to help the project keep moving.
“Together, we went from losing this entire facility and having vets drive to Spokane and Seattle for care, to having it taken off the closure list altogether. And after securing $23 million in federal funding last year and having the official land transfer to the state happen just two months ago, I am proud to stand alongside you here today in your victory to expand these facilities.”
The project has a total price tag of $36 million and will create 93 permanent jobs, officials have said. That staff, trained at Walla Walla Community College in a customized program, will serve veterans from 10 counties. While located on the VA’s federal land here the nursing home will be owned by the state VA.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, called the project “another example of the ‘Walla Walla way.’ You imagine what is possible and work hard to make it happen.”
The local success for veterans didn’t come without concern about continuing administrative and service problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs. After a national scandal over exceeding long wait times for medical appointments last year, waiting periods are going back up. And this week, an audit of the VA reported that more than $43 million dollars dedicated to veterans services three years ago has gone unspent.
Getting new buildings and new technology in Walla Walla is appreciated by veterans, College Place veteran Buddy Georgia said after Wednesday’s ceremony. In speaking to Murray, he said what VA medical care ultimately needs more than anything is capable people.
Georgia, 62, is a longtime advocate for veteran rights and care. He served in the U.S. Navy for 11 years, spread out over deployments from 1970-1988.
Murray said she has worked with Georgia for more than a dozen years, and agrees there are veterans issues a new building won’t resolve.
Wait times at VA facilities that continue to affect veteran care and the VA’s budget problems are on that list, Murray said.
The Veterans Choice program that launched in November allows veterans to seek health care outside the VA system, but in areas like Walla Walla, it’s not enough.
Outsourcing doesn’t work,” Georgia told Murray.
Here, and in many rural areas, the specialists the VA lacks in its medical system are also not likely to be practicing in the nearby community, he said. And with a substantial population of veterans aging into a need for more health care, the problem will worsen, he said.
Georgia’s own experience of needing a specialist unavailable at the Walla Walla VA bears this out, he said. Turning to the town’s providers, he found only two specialists covering his need practicing here, resulting in a three-month wait for a consultation.
“The idea that privatizing the system isn’t going to work, either,” Georgia said.
“This isn’t to rain on any parade, the nursing home is a wonderful thing,” he added. “But if they aren’t able to adequately staff it, it might not be so wonderful.”