Ground broken for expansion of Billings VA Clinic

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

A new 70,000-square-foot VA Clinic is set to open in Billings in February 2014. The clinic will provide specialty outpatient services to 11,000 veterans annually in Eastern Montana, saving them from traveling hundreds of miles to the nearest VA facility.

Ground was broken Friday on the $6.3 million expansion that will triple the size of the existing clinic at 1775 Spring Creek Lane. The construction contract was awarded to Billings VA 2008 LLC. Once the facility is completed, VA will pay an annual rent of about $1.8 million for 20 years.

The new facility will offer many of the services now available at Fort Harrison, Montana’s only VA hospital. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said the new facility will ensure that Montana’s veterans have “world-class medical care.”

Local, state and federal leaders turned shovels of dirt Friday, noting that it was three years ago that the current clinic in Billings opened.

“Today, we double down on the commitment as we break ground on this important expansion,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who led the charge to expand the clinic. “When construction is finished, we will be able to serve more veterans with the care they earned. It will allow us to live up to the promise made to all men who sacrificed for our nation. And all of this — closer to home.”

Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, pushed for the new site when he brought then-VA Secretary James Peake to Montana in 2008 and again in summer 2011 when he brought Shinseki to the state.

Services at the expanded clinic will include primary, mental, specialty and dental care; a laboratory; pharmacy; outpatient surgery; audiology; radiology; physical therapy and vision. Space is also allocated for a veterans benefits administration office. In addition, 230 parking spaces will be constructed.

George Blackard, commander of American Legion Andrew Pearson Post 117, praised the expansion effort, saying it will make it easier for the veterans to receive the care they were promised. But he hastened to add that bricks and mortar alone will not do the job.

“While the expanded facility and promise of additional services is nice, the VA must still fully staff the facility with quality doctors or it is all for nothing,” Blackard said. “We are lucky to have top-notch doctors in the VA system here in Montana but the problem is, there are not enough of them.”

For example, Blackard said, if there is only one orthopedic specialist in the state, someone is going to have to do significant traveling to see him no matter how many facilities there are.

“They say with the expansion here they are going to provide mental health services, but it took them over a year to raise even a partial staff at the new mental health facility in Helena,” Blackard said. “I hope they are serious about staffing this facility.”

Tester vowed Friday to push the VA to make sure the facilities are staffed with qualified health professionals.

Ralph Gigliotti, director of the VA Rocky Mountain Network, said once the expansion is complete, it will house the most specialty and diagnostic capabilities of any clinic in the VA Healthcare system.

This project not only expands access for veterans but also will boost the local economy. The current clinic employs 84 people. The expanded clinic will add 35 new jobs, not including 400 construction jobs associated with the project.

“This clinic is a boost for the community and will undoubtedly bring more changes,” Gigliotti said. “This Billings clinic model of care is good for Montana, good for the VA, and, most importantly, good for veterans.”

Representatives from the offices of Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg were also on hand to lend their support for the expansion project.