Community Medical Center offers brain injury treatment for veterans
A reality of modern-day war is that more and more soldiers return home with traumatic brain injuries.
In a 2009 report, Pentagon officials estimated that 360,000 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered a brain injury during deployment, and 45,000 to 90,000 of those soldiers have lasting symptoms and need specialized rehabilitative care.
In Montana and neighboring states, the situation has been all the more problematic because until recently, war veterans who suffered traumatic brain injuries were forced to seek treatment in Veteran Affairs-sanctioned facilities thousands of miles from home.
Now, after years in the pitching and planning, Community Medical Center has signed a long-term contract with the Veterans Affairs Department to provide rehabilitative services to veterans.
"We have been trying to get our brain-injured vets served closer to home for a long time and in an environment for family and friends to offer support," said Jeanne Elliott, director of the hospital's Rehabilitation Institute of Montana.
As of last month, the Missoula hospital can now help veterans heal, no matter if the injuries they received were from a roadside bomb in Iraq or from a car crash in Montana.
In fact, the Missoula-based service, which is the only certified rehabilitation program for brain injuries in the Northwest, will serve all veterans regardless where they are from.
The timing for this new program is more than ripe, given the number of soldiers returning home to Montana after tours overseas – and given that Montana is ranked fourth highest in the nation for veterans with brain injuries, Elliott said.
More specifically, between October 2010 through May 2011, 745 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were patients with brain injuries in the VA Montana Health Care System, and in August, another 300 Montana soldiers will be returning home from the conflicts.
"We are excited to be offering these services," Elliott said. "It's something we wanted to do for a long time and it's been frustrating that we have all this longevity and expertise in treating brain injuries, which is a complex thing to treat.
"We went through a rigorous contract negotiation for these people seen here and we feel very fortunate to now be able to offer our service to our service men and women."
CMC's program works with the full range of brain injuries, from mild to severe. One of the great strengths of the Missoula program is that it offers assisted-living therapies to help veterans learn how to navigate daily functions and regain an independent life.
"We offer a full continuum of care," Elliott said. "Veterans can be referred to us by a physician or through self referral, and they don't have to have gotten the brain injury in combat – we offer our services to any vet, regardless of where they got the brain injury."
A special thanks is order for Montana's congressional delegation, which helped secure the VA contract, Elliott said.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., made a significant stand on the issue in 2010 when he introduced the Traumatic Brain Injury Care Improvement Act to establish a brain-injury rehabilitation center that is accessible to Montanans, and wrote a personal letter to the VA to make the current CMC contract possible.
As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he was pleased by the recent developments.
"We've taken big strides to strengthen veterans' health care and the folks at Community Medical Center are some of the best prepared to expand these services," Tester said. "Montana's veterans are coming home with serious unseen injuries, like TBI. They deserve the best, most effective treatment possible, and now they'll be able to get it closer to home.
"I'm proud to support needed public-private partnerships, and to do my part to make sure providers like CMC can lead the nation in this groundbreaking treatment."