Walla Walla’s VA granted expansion

Nicole Likarish

After 50 years without major improvements to the campus of the Jonathon M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center, Walla Walla’s veteran community is looking forward to receiving care at the new state-of-the-art 96,000 square foot outpatient clinic to be built on-site. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently approved the preliminary plan to co-locate primary, specialty and mental health care services into a single complex.

Formerly the cavalry post of Fort Walla Walla, Wainwright Memorial was named on the Historic Register in 1974 and still uses 15 of the original 19th century structures. The medical center is comprised of nearly a dozen one-story buildings connected with a covered walkway and the shape and layout of the site is still very much in the style of the early fort. The campus looks as much like the tuberculosis treatment center that stood here in the 1930s and 40s as it does a modern hospital that provides primary and long-term care for veterans in a wide variety of areas from psychiatry to gastroenterology.

The VA has made the best of their humble surroundings and are proud and appreciative of the sense of community and tradition such a layout fosters. Veterans from the nursing home can walk outside and admire the bronze statue to the Medal of Honor recipient for whom the hospital is named and remember the tens of thousands of veterans served at Wainwright Memorial over the last 80 years. Maintaining this historical site during the construction of the new complex is a prerogative of both the community and the VA.

While final budget submissions for the new clinic will not be considered until 2012, the multi-million dollar project has reinvigorated a veteran community that has spent the better part of the last 10 years fighting just to keep the medical center open.
As recently as 2004, Wainwright Memorial faced the threat of closure by the recommendation of a named Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES). The commission reviews VA sites and recommends allocation of funds according to “the accessibility and cost effectiveness of care.” Closure was one possibility among many, including the termination of crucial in-patient services like geriatric and psychiatric care. It took the tenacity of numerous veteran advocate groups, a special task force chaired by Duane Cole and vociferous legislators from the Pacific Northwest like Sen. Patty Murray to publicize the benefits of the VA and demonstrate the lack of alternatives, especially those involving psychiatric care in Walla Walla. The community has its own members to thank for bringing the region’s sole veteran’s medical center back from the brink of forced governmental foreclosure.

Wainwright Memorial has struggled financially in the past, so much so that several of the old cavalry buildings can neither be used nor adequately preserved because of hazardous lead paints and the cost of labor and materials to restore them. The hospital also strains, like medical centers nationwide, to attract qualified staff.

Still, Walla Walla’s VA serves an impressive 13,000 veteran patients annually and has recently hired 29 employees with pending start dates this month.

“It’s all about fiscal responsibility,” Associate Director Chris Martin said. “We just don’t have the kind of demand to warrant certain services.” Instead, the VA frequently refers acute care situations and often dentistry to civilian medical centers. The veteran’s benefits still apply in these referral scenarios, and the majority pay nothing save a small co-pay even when they choose their own doctors and dentists. The new facility, while expanding the scope and quality of care provided, will also be run along these lines, allowing veterans to visit clinics in their own communities.

To the 65,000 veterans served by Walla Walla’s VA medical center, the building proposal and its reassurance of the medical center’s survival is a welcome relief. Stretched across 14 rural counties of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, these veterans worry about extending commutes to VA hospitals in Spokane, Portland or Seattle.

Fortunately, with Wainwright Memorial’s additional funding and expansion, the hospital now emphasizes outreach to those veterans in rural communities. The parent organization to Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs) in the region, Walla Walla’s VA can encourage veterans to seek care in Lewiston, Richland, Yakima or La Grande. Furthermore, veterans with need of routine checkups and tests can participate in the VA’s Telecare program. Without cost to the patient, in-home machines specifically monitor certain chronic conditions and can substitute frequent commutes to the VA hospital.

Such programs are among the most innovative in healthcare today. Martin has worked in the administration of VA hospitals nationwide and was proud to say that the Veterans Health Administration is at the forefront of medical research and healthcare development, especially in the areas of diabetes treatment and prevention, orthopedics, and cardiac health.

Walla Walla’s VA, Martin said, boasts an award-winning wound care research team and a highly respected mental health program, two specialties that make Wainwright Memorial ideal for veterans from Iraq who, under other circumstances, may be considered untreatable.

Much of this is possible due to the increased budget awarded by Congress last May. The decision awarded the Department of Veterans Affairs with a 10 percent budget increase amounting to approximately $3.2 billion. And to what do we owe the increased funding? Martin cites war in Iraq, but partly credits the sensitivity regarding veteran care after the Walter Reed scrutiny early this year.

“Interest in veterans fluctuates with the demand of care and with the public awareness of that demand,” Martin said. Martin explained that veterans’ need for care is constant and that an emphasis on their needs can be difficult to maintain in Congress. Of the upcoming presidential election, Martin says it’s “anybody’s guess” as to how well the VA will be funded in the future. With a whopping 24,000 soldiers wounded already in Iraq, hospital administrators like Martin hope that the expanded budgets keep coming.

In the midst of planning, hiring and budgeting, the hard-working staff at Wainwright has not lost enthusiasm for the cause at hand.

“I don’t know how anyone could not be excited about what we do here,” said Jake Shaw, both a former patient and the current Public Affairs. “We like to say ‘it’s now our turn to serve.'”