Daily Inter Lake: Tester hears veterans’ concerns about the VA during Kalispell meeting

by Kate Heston

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester took in local veterans’ concerns about the Department of Veterans Affairs during a roundtable discussion in Kalispell on Friday.

The gathering, held at McGarvey Law in downtown Kalispell, featured representatives from the Kalispell Vet Center, the Montana VA Medical Center, the Veterans Benefits Administration, Vietnam Veterans of America, among others.

Terry Baker, a Vietnam veteran in attendance, recalled turning to the VA health care system for help addressing his high blood pressure issues. While thankful for the assistance, he noted the long wait times for appointments, which occasionally stretched out five months.

Trying to get ahold of the VA can feel like running into a brick wall, said John Burgess, the president of Somers-based Chapter 1087 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. The lack of information available on the federal agency’s website and the shortage of workers at its call centers only worsens the problem, he said.

“The longer they sit and wait, the angrier they get,” Burgess said of veterans.

Burgess suggested that the VA send a team to Kalispell and host a town hall where information can be provided directly to veterans. That would also let veterans ask questions and get responses, he said.

Ronnie Johnson with the Kalispell Vet Center spoke about the disconnect between younger veterans and the programs available to him through the VA, requesting that doctors be clearer with them during appointments.

“I feel it is very critical that all these young veterans, whether they have issues or not, there needs to be some continuity,” Willa Burgess, John Burgess’ wife, told Tester.

Dr. Judy Hayman, the executive director of VA Montana Healthcare Systems, said that outreach programs and efforts are underway but difficult to execute productively. The local branch of Vietnam Veterans of Americas offered to help set up the town hall, possibly over a luncheon in the coming months.

“Even if you don’t have anything now, you need to do the screening because if you were in service somewhere, odds are you were exposed to something,” Hayman said.

Pat Roberts, another veteran in attendance, raised concerns regarding compensation and pension exams along with community care, a program wherein veterans can receive care locally with their VA benefits rather than travel to a designated clinic.

“[They’re] gonna rush you in and rush you out,” Roberts said of doctors not affiliated with the VA.

TESTER ALSO heard concerns regarding the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — which he helped shepherd to the desk of President Joe Biden last year. The legislation expanded benefits for servicemen and women exposed to toxic substances while in uniform, burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan for example.

John Wise, who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War, spoke about his struggles with the PACT Act; his compensation claim recently failed for the fourth time. Wise has medical conditions that are not on the presumptive list, but still needs care.

Veterans who want to receive retroactive benefits under the PACT Act must apply by Aug. 9, according to VA officials.

They also encouraged veterans to reach out to local Veterans Service Officers for help regarding the process.

Despite the criticisms raised by veterans in attendance, Tester lauded the VA for the work the agency performed.

“Even though there are plenty of reasons to point out imperfections, we do thank [the VA] for the job they do in providing health care to our veterans and their willingness to make improvements,” Tester said.