Montana Standard: Veterans Affairs secretary, Tester tour veterans home in Butte

by Duncan Adams

Tenacity ultimately punched the ticket for the Southwest Montana Veterans Home.

That’s according to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

On Tuesday afternoon, Tester and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough toured the veterans home during a stop in Butte.

People in Butte never give up, Tester said.

Regional veterans teamed up with politicians and others to bring the $20 million project to fruition. Tester, current chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, had helped secure funding for the project, as had other politicians from both parties.

“This is good for our veterans,” he said.

Some of those veterans were turned away Tuesday afternoon when they came for the visit by Tester and McDonough. They were told that attendance at the indoor meeting had to be limited because of COVID-19.

Vietnam veterans Tom Muntzer and Tom Green expressed disappointment about being excluded.

Still, Green praised Tester for his role in advancing the Southwest Montana Veterans Home.

“I think the representative we have in here is a very astute person,” he said.

Tester said he encouraged McDonough to visit Montana to get a sense of the challenges facing veterans in a rural state. The two men and a small entourage had visited Billings and Bozeman and planned to make a visit Wednesday to Helena and the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison.

President Joe Biden nominated McDonough to be the nation’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The Senate confirmed McDonough in that role in early February. He previously worked as White House chief of staff for the Obama-Biden administration and also served in several roles on the National Security Council.

The Southwest Montana Veterans Home includes five cottages, each with 12 single bedrooms, a kitchen area, a dining room and a living room, with lots of windows. The cottage design is meant to provide a comfortable home setting but also skilled nursing and medical care. The first resident moved in last month.

Barb Smith, administrator for Montana’s senior and long-term care division, said two of the five cottages are now available to the division and that cottages three and four should soon be online.

She said there is a waiting list of more than 80 veterans hoping to move to the Southwest Montana Veterans Home.

The skilled nursing facility is located in the vicinity of Continental Drive and Blacktail Loop. The land was donated by the Don Harrington Foundation and local officials helped arrange water and sewer connections.

The state has said the Southwest Montana Veterans Home will offer many services for residents, including an activities program, spiritual resources, support groups and social services. Rehab services will include physical therapy, occupational therapy and respiratory therapy, officials have said.

It took years to cobble together the $20 million needed to build the facilities, including a community center. And construction continues. Ground was broken in July 2019. Once all five cottages are built the veterans home will be able to house up to 60 residents.

Former Democrat state Sen. Jon Sesso of Butte secured an initial $5 million for the home more than a decade ago but the federal government didn’t come through with money until 2018, when Tester helped secure $9.7 million.

That funding was included in a huge appropriations bill approved with bipartisan support and signed by then-President Trump. During the 2019 legislative session, then Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock agreed to make another $5 million available in a cash bill for various projects, including the Southwest Montana Veterans Home. Bullock’s pitch for more funding also received bipartisan backing.

Tester and Butte Democrats in the Montana Legislature have long championed the project, as have Republican state lawmakers from southwest Montana. Efforts are now underway to raise another $3 million to build a sixth cottage.

The home is designed primarily to serve veterans from Butte-Silver Bow and five other counties in southwest Montana: Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Beaverhead, Jefferson, Madison and Powell. There are two other veterans nursing homes in the state, one in Glendive, 445 miles from Butte in far eastern Montana, and one in Columbia Falls, 232 miles away in northwestern Montana.