Keep working for better veterans care

The Billings Gazette

Local veterans and community leaders gathered Friday to celebrate the opening of a new Veterans Administration outreach clinic at 1775 Spring Creek Road near the Zoo Drive interstate exit.

They admired the new building that's 21/2 times larger than the previous location, with easier access and more parking. They praised the staff, which has increased by 15 people at the new clinic. Even as the $8 million facility was dedicated, the crowd of 50 or so looked ahead to more improvements for Montana veterans.

"The building and dedication of this new facility reminds us all that our obligation – to look after all those who have kept us safe – does not stop when they come home," U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said in a brief dedication speech. "I know there is more to be done."

That same day, Tester sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, asking him to ensure that next year's VA budget requests funding of Phase 2: a same-day surgery center and space for pharmacy and lab, which for now will remain at the King Avenue and 24th Street West building. For the time being, veterans will be transported between the two locations to get prescriptions, and they will need to go to Helena for VA surgery.

Back in January 2008, Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, brought then-VA Secretary James Peake to Billings to tour the King Avenue clinic, so he could see that it was woefully inadequate to serve the 6,800 veterans who were using it. Peake got the message; ground was broken last fall; and just 11 months later, veterans saw the new clinic open.

The VA plans to seek funding for Phase 2 of the Billings clinic in the 2011 budget that will be submitted to Congress next year, according to Glen Grippen, director of the five-state VA network that includes Montana. Construction is expected to take 18 months, so the expansion could be completed in 2012.

But first the VA plans to complete projects that will expand telemedicine services to rural Montana veterans and provide Montana with its first inpatient psychiatric care dedicated to veterans:

  • Within the next 30 days, the VA expects to award a contract for a nearly $10 million project at Fort Harrison in Helena to construct a 24-bed inpatient treatment facility specializing in substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • The VA Rocky Mountain Network will spend $15.6 million on rural outreach projects this year using technology to serve veterans. One project involves establishing 10 new primary-care telehealth outreach clinics in the region, including links to Hamilton and Plentywood. Another proposal is a "virtual ICU" linking smaller VA hospitals in Helena, Cheyenne, Wyo., and Grand Junction, Colo., with the VA medical centers in Denver and Salt Lake City.

In his letter to Shinseki on Friday, Tester noted that in just three weeks, "over 1,000 veterans have taken advantage of this new facility." Patient numbers will grow as U.S. military personnel return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II need care, too.

Montanans have seen that a concerted effort of local veterans, our congressional delegation and the VA can make the system better for veterans. The proof is a beautiful clinic on the West End. But as Tester said, Montanans have to keep fighting to meet changing, growing needs for veterans' health care.