Missoulian: Sen. Tester attends grand opening of new Missoula Veterans Affairs benefits exam clinic

by David Erickson

There are roughly 66,000 U.S. military veterans from Montana who have been exposed to toxic chemicals during the course of the their service, according to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

In the nation overall, the number is estimated to be around 3.5 million.

“It just isn’t toxic exposure from burn pits, you know, we still have a lot of Vietnam vets alive who had toxic exposure to Agent Orange, and other exposures in the Gulf that wasn’t smoke,” Tester said. “And we have never really dealt with toxic exposure in this country in the way it needs to be dealt with, and that goes back probably before WWI and mustard gas.”

He described meeting with veterans who can barely breathe or who have cancer or other ailments because of that exposure.

Tester was in Missoula on Friday afternoon for the grand opening of a new Veterans Affairs disability benefits examination facility, located on Great Northern Loop near Reserve Street. Tester chairs the U.S. Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Several providers and one U.S. Air Force veteran said that previously, veterans in western Montana often had to travel as far as Spokane for routine, quick exams like a half-hour dental exam.

“This new clinic will ensure that more veterans in the Missoula area and across much of western Montana can get disability claims done closer to home,” Tester explained. “Any veteran who’s applied for VA benefits knows that medical disability exams are the most critical part of that application for benefits. However, way too often it’s also the most time-consuming part of that application. So, when I heard from vets in Missoula that accessing these exams was taking months and that folks were having to drive hundreds of miles to get them, I knew we had to do better for our vets.”

The new clinic is run by a third-party provider called Leidos QTC Health Services. Larry Shaefer, the CEO of the company, said the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 was critical in allowing the clinic to open in Missoula.

“That was the most significant expansion of benefits and services for toxic-exposed veterans in more than 30 years,” Shaefer said. “And rightfully, that PACT Act increased the volume of exams that we’re performing. Over the past year, the VA has delivered more than $2 billion in earned PACT Act-related benefits to veterans and their survivors. And the VA is delivering these benefits to veterans at the fastest rate in history.”

He said the new clinic will allow his company to increase their capacity to deliver services to veterans by 38%.

“We expect to deliver upwards of 500 exams every month here at this clinic,” he said.

Kate Hahn, a U.S. Air Force veteran who is now Tester’s Veterans Affairs liaison, said before she was hired by Tester she had to travel nearly seven hours roundtrip to Spokane for a half-hour dental exam because she lives 45 minutes outside of Missoula.

“This clinic in Missoula is a big deal because a lot of our veterans, they can’t travel a lot,” Hahn explained. “And we do have a lot of elderly veterans that we want to keep closer.”

According to Tester’s office, the VA partners with medical disability contractors, including QTC Health Services, to “increase its capacity to process benefits claims through fulfilling medical disability exam requests.”

Since October 2023, the VA has completed more than 863,000 claims for benefits.

“The PACT Act is a game changer, it truly is a game changer,” Tester said.