VA Montana hires surgeon to address backlog of veterans needing orthopedic surgery

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

An orthopedic surgeon is expected to join the Department of Veterans Affairs Montana Health Care System in November to ease the growing backlog of disabled, and oftentimes disgruntled, veterans awaiting hip and knee surgery.

The VA would not release the physician’s name, but The Billings Gazette has independently confirmed that Dr. Brooke Hunter, an orthopedic surgeon in Helena, is expected to begin working part time in November and December and move to full time in January 2012.

Hunter is board certified with the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery. He is a Carroll College graduate who earned his medical degree from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. He completed his orthopedic surgery residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and has been in private practice in Helena since 1985.

Hunter could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The announcement of Hunter’s hire comes four weeks after The Gazette published a story reporting that at least 300 Montana veterans were on a waiting list for orthopedic surgery.

It also follows a blistering missive sent by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“This situation is completely unacceptable and it’s getting worse,” Tester wrote. He implored Shinseki to provide as much assistance and guidance as necessary and urged the VA to more aggressively pursue fee-based care that would allow the needs of veterans to be addressed locally and more quickly.

“Veterans across the state have been telling me at every stop how important it is to get an orthopedic surgeon to serve Fort Harrison,” Tester said. “We pushed and pushed — and even brought the VA secretary here to see the need for himself. I’m pleased the VA’s moving forward because a whole lot of Montana veterans should not have to wait for quality orthopedic care.”

Shinseki also got an earful when he was in Billings in July at Tester’s invitation. The logjam of veterans needing help ruled much of an hourlong session that Tester and Shinseki hosted for more than 100 veterans in July. Shinseki told veterans that securing access to quality health care is a priority.

The bottleneck is due primarily to a staff shortage. The Department of Veterans Affairs Montana Health Care System, based in Fort Harrison, had been searching for an orthopedic surgeon to replace Dr. Peter Wendt, who retired and hasn’t operated since March 18. There were two orthopedic surgeons on staff, but Wendt was the only one who performed hip and knee replacement surgery.

To receive surgery, Montana veterans without private insurance must go out of state for care or pay for it out of their pockets. Montana veterans also are being told that the VA facilities in Denver and Salt Lake City are too busy to accept Montana patients and are being placed on a waiting list that is approaching two years.

In addition to hiring an orthopedic surgeon, the VA is taking a series of additional steps that include:

An orthopedic surgeon from the VA medical center in Cheyenne, Wyo., is scheduled to perform three knee surgeries and one hip replacement at Fort Harrison in mid-September.

The VA will continue to send veterans and referrals to other VA facilities in the region for orthopedic surgery. The Grand Junction VA Medical Center is scheduled to do two surgeries before year’s end.

The VA Rocky Mountain Network 19 also is providing resources, according to VA Montana, though there were no specifics.

Project ARCH, or Access Received Closer to Home, also aims to improve access for eligible veterans by connecting them to health care services closer to their homes rather than making them travel to VA facilities.

Billings is one of five VA sites selected for the three-year pilot project, which will continue through fiscal year 2014. The VA has allocated more than $1 million for Project ARCH through the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.