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Opening Statement | Q and A with Secretary Nicholson

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Under questioning from U.S. Senator Patty Murray today, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson revealed new details about his plans for new VA facilities in Questioning the VA Secretary on the Walla Walla and NW Washington VA Clinics Walla Walla and Northwest Washington and committed to working with Senator Murray and the local community.

"At today's hearing, the Secretary gave me his commitment that the Walla Walla community will have a direct and official role in determining the future of the Wainwright campus. I appreciate his commitment, and I'm going to hold him to it," Murray said. "I'm pleased that he's agreed to sit down with me so we can talk about what services will be provided at the new facility. I made it clear that mental healthcare, rehab and nursing home care are not adequately available in communities around Walla Walla, and we need to see how he'll provide that care to veterans under his proposal."

Two weeks ago during a trip to Washington state, the Secretary announced the two new facilities, but a lack of details led Murray and many veterans to wonder just what the Secretary had promised. On July 13th, Murray wrote to Nicholson with a series of questions []. The Secretary's July 19th reply did not provide adequate answers.

Today, Murray questioned Nicholson directly at a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Walla Walla

On Walla Walla, the Secretary committed to Senator Murray that he will follow the CARES process and submit his plan to Local Advisory Panel. This is the first time that the Secretary has provided details on how the process will move forward and specifically how the local community will be involved.

Secretary Nicholson also committed to meeting with Senator Murray to discuss his plan for Walla Walla.

Excerpts from today's hearing:

MURRAY: I want to return to the question about your trip to Walla Walla because as you know, I have a community that cares deeply about this. They have followed the process very, very closely, and they want to have a real voice in the process. I specifically wanted to ask you about the plan to involve the local community. They have followed the CARES process very, very closely. They expect that the VA will follow it too and that means sending a plan to the local advisory committee for review. Can you commit to us that you will follow the CARES process and work with that Local Advisory Panel?

NICHOLSON: Yes, I can Senator Murray. We have followed it, and we have been through the first two stages and our analysis [is] based on that. You know I make those decisions, and I made a decision on Walla Walla that we would keep that campus open. And that was the purpose of my visit there was to tell them -- the community, the patients and the staff -- all of whom had anxiety whether or not we were going to close this -- for the benefit of the others -- a very small VA hospital complex. And I made a decision to keep it open and that was the purpose of going there. Now we are going to go into the third stage, which is – being justifiable to keep it open -- what will it look like? And as you know when I went there I assured them that we were going to have a new ambulatory outpatient clinic facility there. We have other issues that we deal with and will be engaging the -- you know -- Local Advisory Panel on that such as long-term care, inpatient medicine, and inpatient mental. We have those capabilities there, but as you know, the populations are very small. For example the average daily census in the nursing home is 22, in the mental health it's 18, and [in] medicine it's 10.

MURRAY: But you will follow the LAP process so the plan will go to the LAP committee and they will have their ---


MURRAY: -- responsibility to have a response back?

NICHOLSON: Yes we will.

MURRAY: Because the questions that are raised are really -- I mean we have been dealing with this for a long time -- that there aren’t any facilities in the local communities to outsource this to. There’s a lot. Maybe more to the point, as you know, your announcement came as a surprise because many of us have been working very, very closely on this for a number of years now with the community and didn’t know that you coming out there. I’m glad that you have taken the first step to do that and now the second step to continue the LAP process and send the plan. But could I get your commitment to come in and talk with me, bring your staff, so that I can talk with you about the proposal and learn about where we're gonna go from here?

NICHOLSON: Yes, indeed. Sure. We will do that.

[Unofficial transcript prepared by Senator Murray's office. (7/20/06)]

Northwest Washington VA Clinic

Senator Murray also asked the Secretary to clarify what he said at a political event in Bellingham two weeks ago. News reports indicated that the Secretary announced a new clinic, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has been unable to provide Senator Murray with details over the past two weeks.

Under Murray's questioning, the Secretary today confirmed that he has decided to build a new Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Northwest Washington. He said the location has not been selected, but that it will be somewhere between Seattle and the Canadian border. The Secretary said he hopes to pick a location before the end year and that it then usually takes 6 months for a clinic to open.

He also committed to discussing the Northwest Washington clinic with the Senator at an upcoming meeting.

Excerpts from today's hearing:

MURRAY: I also wanted to ask you about Bellingham because when you were there, we were told that you committed to bringing a VA clinic to Northwest Washington, and that some kind of announcement would be coming within the week. I’ve been unable to get any clarification from your staff, and I wanted to find out from you, here, can you tell me, what you said in Bellingham about the new clinic so that we all are on the same page?

NICHOLSON: I can. What I said to the veterans there with whom I met, that we’d made a decision in the CBOC business plan analysis that we would put a new Community-Based, Outpatient Clinic, CBOC, in Northwest Washington somewhere between Seattle and the Canadian border, but I did not specify where it would be located, and I’d be happy to…when we have our meeting to discuss that with you but we haven’t made a decision as to where to site it.

MURRAY: But the decision has been made to site one there? Is there a time on that – a time commitment?

NICHOLSON: Yeah, we hope to make the decision about where to put it before the end of the year and then, you know, usually takes us six months or so then to open one.

Unofficial transcript prepared by Senator Murray's office. (7/20/06)]

In a separate move, Senator Murray also bolstered the case for the Northwest Washington clinic by inserting language into the FY 2007 Military Construction and VA Appropriations bill saying "[T]he Committee encourages the VA to move forward establishing clinics in Bellingham and Centralia, Washington; Alpena, Michigan; and rural Colorado." The bill, with Murray's language, was approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee today.

In other Veterans News today, Senator Murray: