Congress must fund Billings VA clinic

Billings Gazette

by Editorial

Congressional decisions on the belated budget for the year that started Oct. 1 will determine whether veterans will be able to have surgery in Billings.

The expansion of the Veterans Administration outreach clinic on the West End is part of the VA construction budget for fiscal year 2011. With the new Republican majority in the U.S. House on a mission to cut spending, funding for the Billings project is uncertain.

Dozens of veterans who gathered recently at the Billings VA clinic cheered when U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., talked about the planned expansion. Small wonder the veterans want to see the expansion. When the clinic opened in 2009, it wasn’t large enough. Pharmacy and mental health services stayed at the old clinic location at King Avenue and 24th Street West when everything else moved to the new clinic near Interstate 90 and Zoo Drive. So a second phase was planned.

The greatest benefit for veterans in the planned expansion is the addition of an outpatient surgery center. Presently, Montana veterans can get VA-paid surgery at only one place: Fort Harrison near Helena. With same-day surgery in Billings, veterans from this area and Eastern Montana would have much less travel time for most surgeries and post-operative checkups.

Additional services, including dental and audiology now only available at the Helena VA clinic and hospital, also would be brought into the planned larger Billings clinic, according to VA Montana Director Robin Korogi. All health care services, except inpatient care, would be available in Billings.

With the economic downturn, more veterans have sought services because they couldn’t afford private health care, Korogi told The Billings Gazette during a recent interview in Helena. Also veterans are returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan needing care.

Five years ago, Fort Harrison had only 10 staff members working in mental health; now it has 75. More are being recruited to staff the new inpatient behavioral health facility at Fort Harrison scheduled to open this summer. Presently, there is no inpatient VA treatment in Montana for substance abuse or mental illness. The new facility in Helena will have eight beds for substance abuse treatment, eight for post traumatic stress disorder patients and eight beds in a locked psychiatric unit.

Overall, the number of veterans served by VA Montana has increased 7 percent annually for the past three years, Korogi said.

“Some clinics have grown so much, we’re out of space,” Korogi said. Nationally, the VA is expecting no additional money for clinic space over the next three years. The Montana exceptions would be the Billings project already in the 2011 budget proposal and a planned move of the Glendive clinic to a larger space in Glendive.

Korogi directed staff members at each Montana clinic to propose how to improve patient care in the quarters they have. One result may be availability of earlier and later appointments as well as Saturday clinic hours, so the limited number of exam rooms can better accommodate patient traffic flow.

“It’s incumbent on us to come up with efficiencies,” she said.

U.S. military veterans make up about 16 percent of Montana’s population, giving our state one of highest proportions of veterans anywhere in the nation. With well over 100,000 veterans here and 36,000 enrolled for VA services, the potential for more demand is tremendous. Most the Montana veterans enrolled with the VA have service-connected disabilities. Montana must be ready to serve those who have served our country.

As reported previously by The Gazette, Tester noted recently that Republicans in the U.S. House were considering cutting $278 million from the overall VA construction budget.

We call on Montana’s sole U.S. House member, Republican Denny Rehberg, to ensure that the proposed VA construction budget isn’t reduced in the House. We call on Tester and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to fight for the budget that includes the Billings VA expansion.