Expansion of Billings VA Clinic moving forward

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki vowed in July to do what he could to accelerate the planned expansion of the Billings VA clinic, currently scheduled to be completed in 2014.

On Thursday in Billings, Dan Herrera, associate director of the VA Montana Health Care System, told a standing-room-only group of veterans that the expansion project is "fully funded." Bids were let this month and are set to be open mid-March. Contracts are expected to be awarded this summer.

"The sooner we get this done the better," Herrera said.

Shinseki's pledge to expedite construction came after touring the clinic that opened in 2009 near Zoo Drive. Shinseki was in Billings at the invitation of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. It was Shinseki's first visit to Montana.

During his visit, Tester made an unabashed push for the second phase of the clinic and said Shinseki's visit was "critically important" to see first-hand the need for the expansion and additional services.

"Expanding this clinic will bring a lot more veterans closer to the quality health care they need — and the need is growing," Tester said Friday. "A bigger clinic will save money and save lives, and I'll stay on the VA's case until construction is complete."

In addition to a same-day surgery center, the expanded clinic will offer new services in audiology, physical and occupational therapy, dental care and magnetic resonance imaging. Additional space will be added for existing primary-care services.

Once complete, the expanded facility will provide outpatient surgery and specialty services to an estimated 11,000 veterans in Montana, and about 10,000 veterans from neighboring Wyoming. The new facility will offer many of the services now available at Montana's only VA hospital, at Fort Harrison.

The expansion is also expected to create as many as 70 jobs.

The enlarged facility would augment health care services for Billings-area veterans and reduce their travel time and expense to Helena for surgery and other specialty treatments.

Resources for the clinic's expansion will come from the VA's regular construction budget.