BELLEVUE - The state of medical care at Washington's veteran medical centers was among the topics debated at the 86th annual Department of Washington American Legion convention held in Bellevue last week.
A lot of attention was given to the current condition of inpatient services at the Jonathan Wainwright Veteran Medical Center in Walla Walla, which earlier this year was threatened with closure, according to convention delegate Walter George of Sunnyside.
George, who is the commander of Sunnyside American Legion Post #73, said Veterans Administration (VA) officials have promised that, at least for the present, efforts are being made to keep the Walla Walla nursing home and medical clinic open.
"However, there is still talk of closing the 15-bed hospital portion of the facility," said George.
This past spring George was among the several thousand Eastern Washington veterans who journeyed to Walla Walla to protest the threatened closure of the veterans medical center. The regional protest brought out veterans and their families, as well as Congressman George Nethercutt and Sen. Patty Murray, to forestall the closure.
In the meantime, the VA is attempting to find more cost effective ways of provide hospitalization to the aging veteran population while providing for the new veterans, George said.
The VA is now transporting veterans to Madigan Hospital, at Fort Lewis, George explained.
He said VA officials told the American Legion conventioneers that it is too costly to keep the 15-bed hospital open.
We were told it makes more sense to contract out the hospital beds, he explained. The clinic is well used, said George. More than 15,000 veterans annually make use of the Walla Walla veterans clinic, coming from Eastern Oregon and Washington.
Currently, a lot of the veterans who may be in need of hospitalization are being transported for treatment to Madigan Hospital at Fort Lewis.
"We believe the VA is still committed to keeping the nursing home and medical clinic in Walla Walla open," he added.
In the meantime, the VA is conducting a study in order to gather information to determine what will be done about the hospital situation, he added.
"We were also told that the VA plans to rebuild the Restil's Old Soldiers Home and to build a new kitchen for the VA's Spokane nursing home," George said.
The 100-bed Spokane veterans facility will get a new kitchen, making the Eastern Washington facility a self-contained facility, he said.
Among the programs the American Legion members will be focusing on in the coming year is support of a new facility to be located next to the Seattle VA hospital. George said the Seattle VA hospital operates a small family-oriented facility, which closely resembles the Ronald McDonald Houses associated with children's hospitals.
Known as Fisher House, the facility provides housing for the families of veterans who are undergoing cancer treatment at the Seattle VA hospital, George explained.
The American Legion membership is dedicated to help raise funds to support the Fisher House, George said. Half of the operation costs are provided by the Fisher family and the rest comes from the American Legion membership, he said.
George said Norm Simms and Dino Rossi, candidates for the office of state governor, also spoke to the veterans group during the convention.
George said one of the highlights of the week was attending the Brothers Four concert held Friday evening following the state American Legion presidents' reception.
"The event was a standing room only concert. We really enjoyed it," he said.
Also attending the convention from Sunnyside was George's wife, Betty, who is a member of Grandview's American Legion Auxiliary Unit #57.
George, who was one of 241 members who registered to attend the convention, said the American Legion's primary mission is to care for veterans. "That is always our number one issue," he said.
"We are losing more than 1,700 World War II and Korean Conflict veterans every day," George said.
"But we can't forget that there is a younger generation of veterans who will soon be needing VA services, services we've struggled to have and to retain," George said.