Officials tour VA mental health wing

Helena Independent Record

by Sanjay Talwani

The new mental health wing at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Fort Harrison, ready to welcome its first inpatient July 5, is something veterans have needed a long time and now more than ever, said several people involved with a dedication ceremony and tour of the facility.

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), should be called PTSW, for post-traumatic stress wound, because that’s what it is, said Ken “Rosy” Rosenbaum of Helena, a veteran of Korea, Vietnam and Operation Enduring Freedom and a facilitator of Vets-to-Vets, a support organization.

“The invisible wound that results in substance abuse, family issues, job changes — America, we’re going to see more of that,” he told the crowd of more than 150 at the ceremony. “And this is where they’re going to come.”

The $6.7 million facility will provide the VA’s first inpatient mental health beds in the state, preventing some veterans from having to seek care out of state.

Before the ceremony, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sits on both the Senate Veterans Affairs and Appropriations Committees and who pushed the VA to build the facility, heard from several veterans advocates in a discussion that also included national and regional leaders of the VA.

Among those concerns: the slow development of tele-health around the state; problems with the VA’s phone system, which sometimes have people sitting on hold for 15 minutes or more; and the special needs of women, who comprise an ever-increasing percentage of veterans.

Ron Skinner, a founder and board member of Valley Veterans Service Center in Hamilton, said many veterans love the idea of using technology to receive medical care — but many are apprehensive about having to sign documents they see as giving up a relationship with a primary care physician in favor of the provider trained in tele-medicine.

So far, only a small percentage of veterans make use of tele-medicine, in which providers interact with patients using Internet technology. Robin Korogi, Montana Health Care Services director for the VA, said only about 84 people are receiving tele-health in Hamilton and about 20 in Plentywood, for example, but it’s a direction the VA is heading, especially in rural areas.

“We think this is going to explode in the next five years,” said Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health, visiting from Washington. “We are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this. … This is phenomenally important.”

Glen Grippen, director of the VA’s Rocky Mountain Network, said the goal is to integrate such technology with all providers so any VA physician will be able to interact with any patient. Tele-health facilities are at all 15 of the VA health facilities in Montana, but are limited to primary care and mental health services. The VA aims to add specialists to that list.

“That’s how you bring specialists to rural America,” he said.

Larry Longfellow, Montana adjutant/quartermaster for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the VA’s phone system is a major problem, and Petzel agreed, saying it’s a problem across the VA related to outdated switching systems, and the VA is working on replacing older networks; but that’s just a start.

“In the future, we need to do something much more radical and drastic,” he said. “My personal goal is that the phone will be answered in 15 seconds.”

He said the VA will fix the problem, but it will take time — maybe four or five years — and a lot of money, around $5 billion.

Diane Carlson Evans, a Vietnam-era Army nurse and president and founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, said women in particular have growing health needs with the VA. More than 15 percent of the military (up from about 1 percent during Vietnam) are now women, she said, with some issues beyond what most men face.

“We’ve seen the rain, and storm is coming,” she said.

Thousands of women have been assaulted and more than 80 percent of cases go unreported, she said, citing Pentagon figures.

“Thou shalt not sexually assault women in the military,” she said, describing a message she would deliver to service members. “We need to change the culture of the military.”

And, there’s a lack of services for women already; the VA, throughout Montana, has just one part-time gynecologist, who does not do surgery.

“We are being asked to go to Cheyenne,” she said.

Petzel said the VA is working to contract with more providers of all kinds to fight such shortages, He said the VA now spends $4 billion annually on providers outside the VA. The issue is not lack of funds, he said, but getting those contracts in place.

The new mental health wing will serve both men and women; all the rooms are private.

But even with new beds, the VA has work ahead. Korogi said in the last few years, enrollment in VA has increased by 7 percent annually the last few years, with no corresponding increase in staff. Tester said those numbers will continue to grow as more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the dedication, Tester borrowed some words he attributed o an American Legion leader.

“The day this country cannot take care of its veterans is the day we should stop creating them,” he said.