Vets take advantage of Saturday clinic during National Access Stand Down

by Marga Lincoln

Veterans came from as far away as Dillon and Fairfield on Saturday for a chance to get outpatient medical services at the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center.

Medical staff were seeing patients from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. as part of the first ever National Access Stand Down to provide greater access to those vets with either acute medical needs or who had a long wait for their next appointment.

The Fort Harrison Medical Center contacted over 300 veterans and 47 made Saturday appointments, said public affairs officer Mike Garcia.

The five interviewed for this story all gave an enthusiastic thumbs up about their health care at Fort Harrison, but several have problems with typical long wait times.

“I’m just glad to get in and get it done,” said James Johnson of Townsend. A 21-year veteran of the Army, he was there for his semiannual checkup with Dr. Michael Strekall.

Johnson served during the First Gulf War in a maintenance company and was exposed to the highly toxic CARC (Caustic Acid Resistant Coating) paint, he said. As a result, he’s on 10 percent disability.

His initial symptoms, he said, were short-term memory loss and difficulty breathing.

Lawrence Sweet of Butte, also an Army veteran, travels to Helena to see Dr. James Meyer every four or five months.

“This is a special occasion,” Sweet said. “It’s nice to not have to wait until December for an appointment.”

As to the quality of service, it’s “excellent!,” he said.

Another Army veteran, Jim Ward of Butte, was there for his semiannual checkup, “but it’s a year late,” he said. “My doctor wants to see me every six months, but I’m lucky to get in here once a year.”

It’s a Catch-22 when it comes to making appointments, he said. Although he tries to schedule an appointment for every six months, a VA policy only allows setting appointments two months out.

When Ward calls two months ahead, all his doctor’s appointments are booked so he can’t get in.

“It’s a rule that has the dog chasing its tail,” Ward said.

Except for that, “the service is great here,” he said. “I love the service.”

What he really likes is if a test is ordered or a prescription written, he just walks down a hallway and gets it done immediately.

His doctor, Karen Cody, is “awesome,” he said. “She’s the best doctor I’ve ever had.”

“This is the best damn service in the state,” said Bozeman area vet Ted Bartscher, who’s been coming to the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center for decades. “It’s been great. It’s worth the trip to come over.”

His appointment was supposed to be at the end of December, he said, but he was glad to take an earlier one.

Army National Guard member Patricia Ras of Helena, who’s the mother of two young children, was delighted to get her annual checkup on Saturday. “This is fantastic!”

It made child care a lot easier.

“The care is great,” she said, and so is her doctor.

The last time Ras was in for her routine checkup, she was pregnant and was pleasantly surprised at all the information her doctor gave her about her pregnancy and the baby.

The veterans who got health services Saturday are among 47,000 veterans enrolled for health services statewide at either the Fort Harrison Medical Center or 14 clinics across the state, said Garcia.

The Stand Down is a time for the VA to take a close look at its customer service and the quality of service, he said.

It follows on the heels of national concerns about the long wait time veterans face for health care and a report earlier this week released by Senator Jon Tester regarding wait times in Montana.

Primary care wait times in Helena were 40.4 days, according to the report, which were the longest in the state.

Garcia said this is not for vets needing urgent care, but primarily those who need to see certain specialty providers, such as orthopedic surgeons.

The national Stand Down Day was held not only to increase vet access for services, but also for staff behind the scenes to do a lot of updating of electronic records, said Garcia. He added that it’s too early to tell if Saturday’s National Access Stand Down will be repeated in the future.

Montana has 99,646 veterans, said Garcia. Of these, 48,000 are enrolled to receive care through the VA Montana Health Care System.

About 8,700 unique patients are seen monthly at Fort Harrison, he said.