Helena Independent Record VA Secretary McDonough makes Helena stop on Montana tour

by Phil Drake

The head of U.S. Veterans Affairs was joined Wednesday by Montana’s congressional delegation as he capped off a three-day visit to the state at Fort Harrison VA Medical Center in Helena, where he heard from the public about their concerns and what the VA could be doing better.

Denis McDonough, appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed to the post in February, said the Montana VA “does a lot of things really well … and one of them is this team works well together.”

He noted a program in which nurses from the Montana VA system were deployed into community hospitals, which helps ensure continuity of care for veterans and prompt payment of bills.

“What Montana is demonstrating is that support for our vets … is an all-hands-on-deck effort, and what we have seen in Montana is some really innovative great ways to do that,” McDonough said.

He was joined by Montana’s congressional delegation, which includes Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Republican Sen. Steve Daines and GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale. He met with various veterans advocates and caregivers at the Montana National Guard headquarters.

Tester said McDonough has hit the ground running and has done a great job listening.

“The bottom line is he is someone who understands the challenges our veterans have had and does a great job,” Tester said, adding he will take some of the ideas from Montana back to Washington, D.C.

The visit comes the day after the Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System opened a $12 million state-of-the-art primary care clinic at Fort Harrison VA Medical Center. The 20,000-square-foot clinic, which will serve about 5,000 veterans and have more room for staff areas, will provide primary care to Montana veterans in one space and is designed around the VA’s integrated Patient Aligned Care Team model.

McDonough spoke about vaccination efforts against COVID-19. Montana VA was selected in December as one of 113 VA sites to receive initial doses of the coronavirus vaccine. It was also part of a national pilot program to bring the vaccine to veterans in rural areas.

President Biden on March 24 signed legislation expanding COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to veterans and their families. The Strengthening and Amplifying Vaccination Efforts to Locally Immunize all Veterans and Every Spouse Act (SAVE LIVES Act) lets the VA provide COVID vaccination services to all veterans, veteran spouses, caregivers, and Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) recipients if such vaccines are available.

“I am particularly grateful for the progress we have made in vaccinating, but we still have a long way to go,” McDonough said. He later encouraged people to talk with others about their positive vaccination experience to rebut hesitation about being vaccinated.

Montana veterans who would like to verify their eligibility to receive a COVID-19 vaccine under the new law, must contact (877) 468-8387 and select Option 2, and then Option 2 again. This includes Priority 8e and 8g Veterans. Once eligibility is verified, qualifying veterans, their spouses or veteran caregivers can schedule a vaccination at any of the upcoming Montana VA COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

At Wednesday’s forum, Timothy Peters, state adjutant quartermaster for Montana VFW, urged McDonough to create a “comprehensive total package for toxic exposure to cover past, current and future veterans.”

“This is going to be a humungous issue in the future. It’s big now and it is only going to get worse,” he said.

McDonough said it is an issue he is spending a lot of time on now, and it was the topic at his first team leadership meeting and a major topic during his confirmation hearing.

He said his agency would look closely at legislative proposals. He said he wants to get to a point where veterans have enough trust in the system and that they come forward and file claims.

McDonough said he wants veterans to file claims because they provide information on what is happening to vets. It gives a bigger picture of what is happening to vets. He called for more aggressive research within the VA and said he would have a meeting once every three months on this topic.

“We’re not waiting for anybody to come to us with the science; we are going to get it,” he said.

Dr. Shelly Harkins, chief medical officer of St. Peter’s Health, said veterans do need community hospitals and do need non-VA-related medical services.

“I want you to trust that we are very efficient,” she said. “We have to be. We cannot survive in today’s health care climate without saving every penny, being very careful with the health care dollar and decreasing waste. You don’t have to worry about that.”

She asked the VA to trust the hospital to take care of veterans. She said many veterans worry about the bill, and she tells them not to worry.

“Let’s make sure veterans know they will be cared for wherever they go,” Harkins said.

Rosendale, ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, said he liked the idea of integrating the entire community to deliver health care to veterans.

Daines, who said he was among the 87 senators who voted for the secretary, said when it comes to veterans the issues need to be bipartisan.

McDonough participated in a veterans roundtable Monday at MSU-Billings, as well as a roundtable Tuesday at Montana State University in Bozeman. He also toured the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel and the Southwest Veterans Home in Butte on Tuesday.

McDonough, who had served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, is the second non-veteran to lead the department and replaced Robert Wilkie, who served as VA secretary under President Donald Trump.

The MTVAHCS serves over 47,000 enrolled veterans across Montana. Veterans are cared for by a staff of 1,400 at 17 sites of care across the state. One-third of Montana VA employees are veterans.