Tester proposes new VA account center

Helena Independent Record

by Martin Kidston

Establishing a patient account center at Fort Harrison would help create nearly 300 new jobs and improve the efficiency of healthcare services for veterans across a large region, Sen. Jon Tester told the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington.

Accompanied by Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, Tester asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Thursday to consider establishing a new Central Plains Consolidated Patient Account Center at the Helena-based hospital post.

Such a center would consolidate the various administrative offices now scattered across a region that reaches beyond Montana. That, Tester noted, would improve VA efficiency while creating needed jobs in Montana.

"The most effective way to get things done is by opening up the lines of communication and putting ideas on the table,” Tester said. "We told (Shinseki) we’re making good progress, but we still have a long way to go to live up to the promises made to our veterans.”

The medical campus at Fort Harrison is already home to the state’s largest VA hospital, as well as a network accounts program and a new VA Regional Office, which opened in 2007 and manages nearly $160 million in compensation and pension payments for veterans.

Tester, a member of the senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said placing the center at Fort Harrison makes sense, given the area’s established VA system and its pool of qualified candidates.

The VA campus at Fort Harrison, Tester added, has plenty of room to accommodate a new facility.

"The existing core staff would provide a cadre to train new staff and minimize the effects of transition to the new model,” Tester told Shinseki. "The Montana Unit has benefited from an ability to recruit and retain competent and committed staff drawn from the Helena area.”

Over the past few years, Tester has held several listening sessions with veterans from across the state.

At one such session held last year at Fort Harrison, veterans asked Tester to help improve VA efficiency, as well as better management of patient accounts.

At the time, Tester convinced then-VA Secretary James Peake to tour Montana to gain an understanding of the state’s size and the distance many veterans must travel for care.

Peake’s tour resulted in several VA improvements in Montana, including three new clinics in Lewistown, Cut Bank and Havre, and an increase in mileage reimbursement.

Tester is now urging Shinseki to create a new VA center in Great Falls and to use federal stimulus money to help spur VA projects in the state, which claims one of the largest per-capita veteran populations in the country.

Yet it’s a new consolidated account center at Fort Harrison that could spell good news for Helena and bring improvements to the state’s VA system if Tester succeeds in pushing it through.

"There was a test program to consolidate VA administrative offices in North Carolina,” said Tester spokesperson Aaron Murphy on Thursday. "It went really well, and so the VA is looking to do this nationally.”