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Originally published Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 7:30 PM

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Walla Walla VA to get $71M renovation

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday it will spend $71.4 million to renovate the aging VA medical center in Walla Walla, Wash., that serves veterans from three states.

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON —

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday it will spend $71.4 million to renovate the aging VA medical center in Walla Walla, Wash., that serves veterans from three states.

The announcement followed years of lobbying by Northwest lawmakers to upgrade the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center, which was once slated for closure.

"This is a major victory that veterans in southeast Washington, northern Oregon and Idaho have waited a long time for," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "Thousands of veterans rely on the Walla Walla VA, and today they can look forward to a new era of quality, expanded local care."

The VA hospital serves nearly 70,000 veterans in Eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon, who otherwise would have to go to Seattle or Portland, Ore., for treatment.

The project to modernize 65,000 square feet of medical space is scheduled to break ground in 2010.

"Eastern Washington veterans have waited a long time for this news," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. "I applaud the VA for moving forward on this project that will ensure veterans in Eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon receive the kind of care they have earned from a modern facility."

Established in 1858 on an 84-acre campus at Fort Walla Walla, the medical center has 55 beds for nursing, psychiatric and substance abuse treatment.

The center 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.

In 2006, the VA committed to improving its Walla Walla facilities for veterans. That project was 14th on the department's priority list for construction nationally and was not included in President Bush's proposed 2009 budget.

Thursday's announcement moves up the timetable for construction by at least two years. Northwest lawmakers personally lobbied Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake to support the project and move it higher on the department's priority list.

Peake visited Walla Walla in February, three months after becoming VA secretary. He is the third VA chief since the department recommended closing the Walla Walla facility in 2003.

"Today's news is the result of a long, hard struggle that I have been proud to fight with the veterans that rely on the Walla Walla facilities," said Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee. "Today it is clear that not only will the Walla Walla VA medical center survive, it will prosper."

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McMorris Rodgers also thanked Peake for listening to the concerns brought forward by Northwest lawmakers.

"The staff at the Walla Walla VA Medical Center already provides quality care and I look forward to seeing the even greater care they will deliver with this new, modern facility," she said.

"With Thanksgiving right around the corner," Murray added, "this is a perfect time to thank the brave men and women who have served and sacrificed for our country with funding for this critically needed facility."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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