VA Secretary Shinseki vows to accelerate expansion of Billings VA clinic

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on Friday vowed to do what he could to accelerate the planned expansion of the Billings VA clinic, currently slated to be completed in 2014.
“We’re going to see what we can do to move the timeline up,” Shinseki said. “This is a wonderful new facility … so, the sooner we bring phase two on the better. I do understand the tyranny of distance in Montana.”
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. He and Tester traveled the state from Helena to Billings over two days.
Tester, who has had a long-standing invitation to Shinseki, said it was “critically important” to get Shinseki in the state to see and hear firsthand the issues facing Montana veterans.
“And, I absolutely wanted to make another push (for) the second phase of this clinic,” Tester said.
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.
“What we have in Secretary Shinseki is someone who believes in veterans,” Tester said. “… He believes that they need to get what they earned. There is no stronger advocate, no stronger supporter, and no stronger leader for veterans in this country than Secretary Shinseki.”
Resources for the clinic’s expansion will come from the VA’s regular construction budget. At one point Republicans in the House of Representatives considered a plan to cut $278 million from the VA’s construction budget, a move that could jeopardize the planned expansion. Shinseki said Friday he has no doubt the expansion will be funded.