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(Washington, D.C.) – A week after a surprise announcement by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson and with many questions still unanswered, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) today wrote the Secretary with a series of questions about his plans for a new veterans' facility in Walla Walla.



"As we have discussed repeatedly, veterans, community leaders and local advocates have spent years working their hearts out to protect and enhance veterans healthcare in the Walla Walla region. Your surprise visit and secrecy-shrouded announcement fell far short of the open, detailed answers they deserve," Murray wrote. "Throughout this process, veterans have been rightfully worried about how they will get the healthcare they need, and your announcement has not eased those worries."



On Friday, July 7th with little advance notice, Secretary Nicholson flew to Walla Walla where he made a surprise announcement that the VA would build a new outpatient facility to replace the aging Jonathan Wainwright VA Medical Center, which serves 69,000 veterans in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.



During his visit, Nicholson provided few specifics about how his plan would work, how veterans would get critical services, and how it would be paid for. Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote to Nicholson seeking those answers.



"While I appreciate your visit to my home state, your trip has raised new questions about what services will be provided, how they will be paid for and when they will become available. I'm troubled that your announcement appears to eliminate some critical services in the region, and I'm concerned that veterans could be left with another empty promise if you don't provide the funding to deliver on your announcement," Murray wrote.



In 2003, the center was targeted for closure by the VA Cares Commission. Murray, veterans, and local advocates worked together and removed the center from the closure list. For the past few years, they've worked to ensure that VA services will still be available in the region. Murray secured $250,000 to allow a local task force to develop a preferred alternative, which it presented to the VA Undersecretary for Health in April.



In her letter, Murray asked about the Secretary's plan for community involvement.



"Most importantly, how do you plan for community stakeholders and veterans to be consulted and included in these decisions?" Murray asked.



News reports of Nicholson's visit last week suggest that some services will be eliminated at the new clinic.



"I am deeply concerned that you have proposed to eliminate the VA’s nursing home care, residential rehabilitation, inpatient healthcare, and inpatient mental health services in an area that lacks these services," Murray wrote. "Although you guaranteed these services to the community, how do you plan to ensure that if your own proposal eliminates them?"



Murray closed by saying that the local community deserves full answers.



"Mr. Secretary, this community has worked so hard over the years in good faith and even provided you with a detailed proposal for how care should be provided in Walla Walla. They deserve the same from you. I await your answers," the Senator wrote.



The full text of Senator Murray's letter follows:



July 13, 2006



The Honorable R. James Nicholson
Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20420



Dear Secretary Nicholson:



As we have discussed repeatedly, veterans, community leaders and local advocates have spent years working their hearts out to protect and enhance veterans healthcare in the Walla Walla region. Your surprise visit and secrecy-shrouded announcement fell far short of the open, detailed answers they deserve.



Throughout this process, veterans have been rightfully worried about how they will get the healthcare they need, and your announcement has not eased those worries.



While I appreciate your visit to my home state, your trip has raised new questions about what services will be provided, how they will be paid for and when they will become available. I am troubled that your announcement appears to eliminate some critical services in the region, and I am concerned that veterans could be left with another empty promise if you do not provide the funding to deliver on your announcement.



I am writing to you in the hope that you can give me the answers I need to fully evaluate how your proposal for the Walla Walla VA Medical Center will impact the veterans I represent.



While I am pleased to learn that the VA intends to maintain a footprint in the region --something that I have been fighting for over many years -- I have many questions about the details.



What services will this new facility provide? How much will it cost to build? When will it open? What process will the proposal go through? What services will be provided by the current facility in the interim? And most importantly, how do you plan for community stakeholders and veterans to be consulted and included in these decisions?



I am deeply concerned that you have proposed to eliminate the VA’s nursing home care, residential rehabilitation, inpatient healthcare, and inpatient mental health services in an area that lacks these services. Although you guaranteed these services to the community, how do you plan to ensure that if your own proposal eliminates them?



Mr. Secretary, this community has worked so hard over the years in good faith and even provided you with a detailed proposal for how care should be provided in Walla Walla. They deserve the same from you. I await your answers.



Sincerely,



Patty Murray
United States Senator