Helena Independent Record: Tester, VA undersecretary huddle with Montana veterans about PACT Act
The VA undersecretary for health said Friday the agency was ramping up to reach out to Montana’s veterans, hoping they will use the new PACT Act to help them with benefits they were promised, improving health care in the community and expanding access to mental health care.
Dr. Shereef Elnahal participated in a news conference held by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, in Billings after the two met earlier with Montana veterans.
Tester, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, brought Elnahal on his first official trip to Montana to hear from veterans about the challenges in accessing health care and benefits.
They both discussed the PACT Act, which is the largest expansion of veteran health care and benefits in decades. It expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances.
More than 176,000 veterans have applied for PACT Act-related benefits and more than 503,000 veterans have received the new toxic exposure screenings, with nearly 39% reporting a concern of exposure, since President Joe Biden signed it into law Aug. 10.
Elnahal said many of the toxic exposure screenings have been in Montana.
Tester called the PACT Act a “historic bill and long overdue.”
He said the VA was increasing hiring and more work needed to be done to make sure veterans are receiving benefits. He said they were also looking at mental health and suicide prevention in Montana, adding “We need to improve services in rural America.”
Elnahal said the visit allowed him to learn about the unique needs of Montana veterans.
“I can tell you the task ahead of us is a big one,” he said, adding he is not mincing words when he says the VA wants to get every qualified veteran who had toxic exposure into the system as fast as possible.
In terms of assessing Fort Harrison in Helena, he said it was like every medical center in the country where there is room to grow and improve access to care.
“That said, it is on a great trajectory,” Elnahal said. “I think progress being made.”
Elnahal said said Montana was unusual in that many veterans drive long distances for care or go closer to home outside of the VA system.
“We depend on community here more than other places,” he said.
Elnahal said the VA’s relationship with the community should be more seamless and have better continuity of care.
He said he would like to use telehealth more widely, rather than go through brick and mortar clinics.
Tester said Montana has large swaths of inadequate broadband capability.
“It’s coming, but we don’t have it yet,” he said.
The VA announced this week it is hiring people to join the benefits team as it begins processing PACT Act claims starting in January. They said the new VA employees will help ensure veterans and survivors get the PACT Act-related benefits they’ve earned in a timely manner.
These people will work across 56 regional offices and 39 other special processing and call centers in the United States and Puerto Rico.
“There are millions of Veterans and survivors who are eligible for new benefits and health care as a result of the PACT Act, and we won’t rest until every one of them gets what they deserve,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in an email.
The VHA hired a record 48,500 new clinical and administrative staff in 2022, an increase of 5,000 more hires than in 2021. Since the start of the current fiscal year in October, VHA achieved a net increase of 1,815 more employees compared to zero last year.
Elnahal said it is “absolutely necessary” to hire more people in Montana to serve vets here.
But he added it is hard to find people to hire in rural America.
Tester noted it was “a known fact” we do not have the professionals out there to meet the demand, inside and outside the VA.
He was asked at the teleconference how he felt about efforts to end the mandate that requires troops to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
Tester said as a matter of readiness, lawmakers should listen to generals.
“If it impacts readiness, it is a stupid thing to do,” he said. “If not, there is no reason to have it.”
Elnahal said the most important task ahead of the VA is to have services that veterans can trust.
He urged veterans to take advantage of this new service.
Montana VA is having three events next week on the PACT Act.
There is a virtual town hall from 5-6 p.m. Dec. 13. Call 866-478-3358 to join by phone or livestream the PACT Act virtual town hall from www.access.live/MontanaVATownHall or from Montana VA’s Facebook page.
From 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Dec. 15, there will be a Billings PACT Act Open House. Montana VA staff will help veterans to apply for benefits, complete toxic exposure screenings, and enroll in VA health care. Veterans should bring their DD214 document. The event is at the Benjamin Charles Steele VA Clinic, main conference room, 1766 Majestic Lane, Billings.
Then from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 15, there will be a Fort Harrison PACT Act Open House. Montana VA staff will help veterans to apply for benefits, complete toxic exposure screenings, and enroll in VA health care. Veterans should bring their DD214 document. The event is at Fort Harrison VA Medical Center, Rec Hall, 3687 Veterans Drive, Fort Harrison.