News Releases

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray today coauthored a letter with Senator Maria Cantwell calling on VA Secretary Anthony Principi to reject recommendations by the CARES Commission to close the VA facility in Walla Walla.

Earlier this month, the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) Commission forwarded its final report to Secretary Principi calling for the closing of impatient beds at Walla Walla and contracting out acute medical care and impatient psychiatry.

“Closing this facility puts easily accessible care out of the reach of our region’s veterans and adds questions instead of certainty for our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Senators told Principi in their letter. “[W]ithout adequate alternatives available to our state’s veterans, we must renew our objection to the CARES Commission’s recommendation for Walla Walla and urge you to reject this portion of the report.”

Full letter to Secretary Principi follows the timeline.

Timeline of Senator Murray’s Actions To Save Washington’s VA Facilities

  • 07/03 - Senator Murray visits veterans in Walla Walla to discuss a variety of issues including CARES.
  • 07/03 - Senator Murray writes to Secretary Principi expressing extreme concern about the CARES process and proposed closures to the American Lake, Vancouver and Walla Walla facilities.
  • 07/03 - Senator Murray questions VA Chief Counsel Tim McClain about the directive to VISN 20 leaders regarding closing the facilities.
  • 07/03 - Senator Murray receives a call from Secretary Principi – American Lake is no longer under consideration for closure.
  • 07/03 - Senator Murray cosponsors legislation (Graham) which would require the VA to provide 60-day advance notification to the Congress of any hospital closures under the CARES initiative.
  • 08/03 - Senator Murray visits with veterans and staff at the American Lake and Vancouver VA facilities.
  • 09/03 - Senator Murray questions Secretary Principi during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
  • 09/03 - Senator Murray provides testimony to the CARES Commission at Vancouver and Walla Walla, and signs a joint WA, OR delegation letter to the Commission in support of the facilities.
  • 10/03 - Senator Murray contacts the VA in support of expediting the process which would allow an enhanced use facility to be built on the Vancouver VA campus in cooperation with Clark County.
  • 11/03 - Senator Murray includes language in the VA benefits bill, requiring the Secretary to either open a VA facility in North Central Washington or contract with local hospitals.
  • 11/03 - Senator Murray visits with veterans in Wenatchee.
  • 12/03 - Senator Murray co-authors a letter with Senator Cantwell to VA Undersecretary for Health, Robert Roswell, opposing any closures in Washington.
  • 02/04 - Senator Murray again questions Secretary Principi and Undersecretary Roswell at a VA committee hearing.
  • 02/04 - CARES Commission sends its report to Secretary Principi – included are recommendations to expand services in Vancouver and close Walla Walla.
  • 02/04 - Senator Murray co-authors a letter with Senator Cantwell urging Secretary Principi to reject the CARES Commission’s recommendation to close the Walla Walla VA facility.

...........................................................

February 26, 2004

The Honorable Anthony Principi
Secretary
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420

Secretary Principi:

We are writing to express our concerns with the CARES report recently presented to you. While we appreciate and support the Commission’s recommendations about the need to expand services in Vancouver, we urge you to reject the recommendation to close the VA facility in Walla Walla.

As you are aware, the CARES Commission has proposed contracting out inpatient medicine, psychiatry care and nursing home care. We have concerns about contracting out any of these services as the private sector facilities in the area do not have the capacity to take the additional patient load.

We are particularly worried about the lack of mental health care services in the community to care for our veterans. The Commission has suggested that, while there are not current mental health care services in this area, it believes such services will become available. However, the Washington State Mental Health Division (WSMHD) has recently completed a study that estimates that approximately 296,000 people in Washington state suffer from serious mental illness and that in Walla Walla County approximately 3,202 people currently suffer from serious mental illness.

Walla Walla County is managed by the Greater Columbia Regional Support Network, which also includes Asotin, Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Garfield, Kittitas, Klickitat, Skamania, Whitman and Yakima Counties. This study showed that 29,544 adults had serious mental illness while only 9,465 in this region received public mental health services. As the VA is currently one of the few sources for mental health care services, we very concerned that affordable and quality services for our veterans in Central and Eastern Washington will not materialize.

As you know, last December, we sent a letter to Dr. Roswell alerting him to many of our concerns. Specifically, citing the artificially low market penetration in Washington state’s VA system. Due to the economic downturn in our State and especially in the Walla Walla area, many veterans have seen their private health care benefits erode and the cost of their health care dramatically increased. Coupled with the fact that a new generation of veterans will be returning home to Washington after their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans in our state will be coming to the VA with increasing frequency. It is imperative that all of these veterans receive the quality VA healthcare to which they are entitled.

Another concern is the increasing age of veterans in our State. Currently, 55 percent of veterans in the State of Washington are over the age of 55. The demographic projections for veterans in the next two decades indicate that in 2022 over 70 percent of Washington’s veterans will be 55 or older. It is essential that we take steps to ensure our aging veterans, as well as our new veterans can get adequate health care.

We are also deeply concerned with the backlogs and delays our constituents continue to experience. There are approximately 14,000 veterans on the VISN 20 waiting list. These veterans will wait six or more months for a non-emergency clinic visit. The VISN 20 waiting list represents twenty-four percent of the national waiting list but only represents five percent of the total veterans population. Closing the Walla Walla VA Medical Center will further exacerbate the backlogs and delays our veterans are already forced to encounter.

Finally, we respectfully remind you of PL100-71, which prohibits changing the mission of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Walla Walla.

We are aware of the challenges you face and appreciate your commitment to caring for all of our nation’s veterans. We are committed to all veterans and 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 our State’s veterans, we must renew our objection to the CARES Commission’s recommendation for Walla Walla and urge you to reject this portion of the report.

Sincerely,

Patty Murray
United States Senator

Maria Cantwell
United States Senator

CC: Dr. Robert Roswell, Undersecretary for Health