Missoula VA clinic still on track for expansion


by Martin Kidston

The Department of Veterans Affairs Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Missoula remains on track for an expansion, though the agency said Thursday it’s still working to complete details surrounding the project.

In February, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to expedite the expansion efforts, saying an anticipated wait of up to nine months for construction to begin was too long.

Johnny Ginnity, assistant director of the VA Montana Health Care System, said the agency is working through the approval process – including contracts and bids – and expects progress by year’s end.

“There’s no doubt the expansion is needed and it won’t get disapproved, but there are legal requirements we must follow to put things out,” Ginnity said. “We’re anticipating, by the end of the calendar year, to have the design and plan ready to go.”

Plans for the clinic, located on Palmer Street, call for an expansion of 4,300 square feet, creating more space for physical therapy, and primary and mental health care.

Ginnity said the cost of expansion will be amortized into the building’s lease. Those figures will be finalized once the plans are completed, he said.

“It will create better access to our patients,” Ginnity said. “They’re getting in in a timely manner, but we’ll be able to get them in even sooner. We’ll build that clinic incrementally to meet the demands. We’re not adverse in the future – if we need more space – to look at other places.”

Gail Wilkerson, the congressional liaison with the VA Montana Health Care System, said the Missoula clinic saw roughly 25,000 patient visits for primary care and mental health needs in fiscal year 2012.

That was second only to the Billings clinic, which saw 28,000 visits. The Kalispell clinic saw 24,000 visits and the clinic in Great Falls saw 19,000.

“In an effort to support the needs of our western Montana veterans, the VA Montana Health Care System developed an initiative to expand services at the Missoula clinic,” Wilkerson said. “The initiative, which is currently in the approval process, recommends an increase in clinical space.”

In February, Tester called on VA Secretary Shinseki to speed up the process, saying the center was vital to the medical care of regional veterans.

Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, urged the VA “to do absolutely everything” to expedite the clinic’s request to grow.

“Veterans in Missoula and surrounding communities rely heavily upon this clinic to address their health care needs, including mental health care needs, and it is proving difficult for the current facility to accommodate the growing patient demand,” Tester wrote in the letter. “After more than a decade of war, doctors and nurses are having trouble keeping up with the growing health care needs of our fighting men and women.”

Employees at the clinic said they were not permitted to speak to the media on the issue or the proposed project.

Ginnity said patients have never been denied service at the clinic. In the event the clinic can’t fit them in, he said, they’re referred to other providers in the community.

The expansion will create two exam rooms per provider, following the VA’s model of patient-centered care. Ginnity said the Montana VA continues to map the concentration of vets in order to respond to changing demands.

“Under this initial plan, we may grow by a few employees,” Ginnity said. “As we look at behavioral health – mental health – we’ll always look closely at that product line. As we have more office space and capacity, we’ll absolutely hire and fill that to meet the needs.”