Tester unveils Montana veterans report

by Phil Drake

Wait times for veterans seeking medical help at Great Falls-area Veterans Affairs facilities can range anywhere from four to 10 days, according to a report released Wednesday by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

These are numbers the senator said he would like to see decreased.

The “State of Veterans in Montana” report, released on Veterans Day, outlines wait times veterans have to get care at VA facilities. The report also looks at the demographics of the state’s veteran population, regional care and offers stories of veterans who have contacted Tester’s office for help in navigating the VA system and other issues.

It also provides solutions that the senator has offered to some problems.

Tester said the number of veterans going to VA facilities has increased, which also has added to wait times.

He said most Montana veterans tell him they usually get good care from doctors and VA staff.

“The docs and the nurses, for the most part, are the best in the business,” Tester said. “But the hard part is getting that appointment.”

He said more doctors and general practitioners are needed in Montana. He also said he did not approve of sending veterans outside the state for care, adding it was not cost effective nor was it easy for veterans.

Tester said he hoped the report will increase transparency and government accountability and “ensure that in Montana, every day is Veterans Day,” he wrote in the 28-page report’s introduction.

The report breaks down Montana into eight regions, based on the locations of the Democrat’s field offices.

The VA has been plagued with mismanagement and scandal, Tester said.

“I know the VA has been under a microscope, and it should be,” he said. “It’s responsible for honoring a promise, and when that promise is broken, we need to do more than just say sorry. We need to fix it.”

Tester said he led the Senate to “adequately fund” the VA as it passed his Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs Appropriations bill, which funds the VA through September 2016.

Tester criticized the bill, as it was reported out of the Senate Appropriations Committee in May, because it underfunded the VA by more than $850 million. He then offered an amendment that he said shored up funding for the VA.

Tester was joined at the news conference in Missoula by Shawn Groves, an Iraq War veteran who heads the student veterans office at the University of Montana; Jess Munro, a Vietnam veteran and former UM professor; and Maj. Gen. Matthew T. Quinn, adjutant general for Montana, commander of the Montana National Guard and director of the Department of Military Affairs.

There are nearly 100,000 veterans living in Montana, making up nearly 10 percent of the Treasure State’s population.

Nearly 75 percent of those veterans served in wartime. Of those, 91,201 are male and 8,445 are female, the report states. Of those, 31,224 are over 70 (31 percent); 25,197 (25 percent) are 60-69, 15,728 are 50-59 (16 percent), 12,181 (12 percent) are 40-49, 10,033 (10 percent) are 30-39 and 5,283 (5.3 percent) are 20-29.

Tester noted the Vietnam-era veterans are getting older, along with a new generation of service members who have returned home.

“We remember that taking care of our veterans is a cost of war,” he stated.

Tester has sponsored 37 bills in Congress this year on behalf of veterans, staff members said.

At Fort Harrison in Helena, a regional VA hospital, there is a 4.5 wait day for mental health help, the report finds. A 40.4-day wait for primary care and 17.2-day wait for specialty care.

The facility has had 8,532 appointments as of Oct. 15.

The report states the Fort Harrison VA medical center facility was without a director from June 2014 to February, which hurt the ability of VA Montana to “take strong action, to make long-term decisions and to implement the dramatic reforms necessary for the VA to meet the demands of the state.”

Tester noted such VA vacancies are prevalent and said he wrote legislation requiring the VA to implement robust succession planning policies to address the prevalence of vacancies across the agency.

Last month, the VA Montana held a town-hall meeting in Helena attended by about 60 people. Some in the audience said they did not like having to go out of state to get medical help.

Officials told audience members Montana VA did not have a large medical network and asked for their help to expand it.

In the Great Falls area, 579 veterans live in Blaine County, 11,136 are in Cascade County, 540 live in Chouteau County, 1,134 live in Fergus, 1,338 live in Hill, 217 live in Judith Basin, 129 in Liberty, 336 in Phillips, 558 in Pondera, 648 live in Teton and 523 live in Toole.

Veterans Affairs facilities in the Great Falls area include the Great Falls VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, 1417 9th St. S.; the Lewistown VA Community-based Outpatient Clinic, 629 N.E. Main St. in Lewistown; and the Havre VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, 130 13th St. in Havre.

The three facilities had a total of 1,756 appointments as of Oct. 15, according to the report, with Great Falls having 1,330 of them. Havre had 231 and Lewistown had 195.

The report measures wait times for veterans at the medical facilities.

In Great Falls, it can be a seven-day wait for mental health issues, as of Oct. 15, nearly eight days for primary care and nearly nine days for specialty care, according to the report.

In Havre, it’s a one-day wait for mental health care, .2 days for primary care and seven days for specialty care. In Lewistown, it’s zero days for mental health care, 1.4 for primary and 6.4 for specialty.

Of the state’s veterans, 3,693 served in World War II, 6,746 served in Korea, 32,579 served in Vietnam, 13,044 served in the Gulf War, 12,127 served post-9/11 and 7,123 served in multiple wars.

“This report serves as a reminder that our duty to do right by our veterans should be as unwavering as the bravery and courage of those who have responded to the call of duty,” Tester writes in the introduction.

It also offers some solutions by Tester and outlines solutions:

  • Wrote the Delivering Opportunities for Care and Services Veterans Act to provide help to recruit and retain qualified medical professionals, specifically mental health professionals, in rural America, and to expand mental health residency programs.
  • Authored the Ruth Moore Act, which would make it easier for veterans to qualify for disability benefits by reducing their burden of proof for incidents of military sexual trauma.
  • Co-authored legislation that calls for the termination of any VA employee who is found to have retaliated or threatened to retaliate against a whistleblower for disclosing wrongdoing.

Munro said more resources are needed to help veterans but said Montana VA does a great job with limited resources. He also thanked Tester for his work to help veterans.

One of the speakers said they hoped people would take some time Wednesday to think of veterans and not let it be “just another day off.”

To read the report, go to: http://bit.ly/1HzXEAU