New clinic to replace aging VA hospital in Walla Walla

YAKIMA – The federal government will replace an aging veterans’ hospital in Walla Walla with a new outpatient clinic there, Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson said Friday.

The hospital has served veterans living in parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Some veterans and members of Congress who had been seeking a commitment from the Veterans Administration cheered the announcement that veterans’ health services would still be provided in Walla Walla.

However, some also raised concerns that veterans who need inpatient services will be forced to visit community hospitals or travel to VA medical centers in Spokane, Seattle, Idaho or Oregon.

Established in 1858 on an 84-acre campus at Fort Walla Walla, the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center serves an estimated 69,000 veterans in southeastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and northern Idaho. The hospital has been threatened with closure for several years as part of an overhaul of the VA’s health care system, and saving it became a bipartisan effort for lawmakers from the three states.

The facility that will replace it will provide state-of-the-art outpatient services, including primary care, specialty care and mental health care, Nicholson said in a statement.

Nicholson said the new clinic will be located on the Walla Walla hospital campus. The VA will use the rest of the campus for housing and other services.

The VA also will work with local officials, nonprofit organizations and state and local governments to provide nursing home care, residential rehabilitation, inpatient medical care and inpatient mental health care in Walla Walla, although not necessarily on the VA campus.

Details about the cost and timetable for building the new facility, and the fate of the existing hospital, were not immediately disclosed.

The current hospital has 66 beds: 30 for nursing care; 22 for psychiatric and mental health treatment; and 14 for acute care.

Only about seven to nine of the acute care beds are typically full, said Roxanne Sisemore, the hospital’s public affairs officer. But all of the beds for psychiatric and substance abuse treatment and two-thirds of the nursing beds are generally full, she said.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee that has championed efforts to keep the hospital open, raised concerns that local communities may be unable to meet veterans’ medical needs if VA inpatient services are discontinued in Walla Walla.

She also said that while she applauded the decision to open the clinic, the VA must commit to finding the money to build it before she will be satisfied.

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