New VA Clinic brings specialty services closer to Billings-area veterans

Billings Gazette

A standing-room-only crowd of at least 200 people Friday morning helped officially open the $6.3 million Majestic Lane Clinic, which gives veterans in the Billings area access to specialty services.

Three generations of veterans from all branches of the military used canes, walkers, wheelchairs, crutches and their own legs to jockey for a view of the dignitaries gathered.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines were all on hand for the 70-minute ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony. Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary of Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Billings Mayor Tom Hanel also attended.

Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs provided care to nearly 6.5 million veterans. In the next few years, as the nation completes more than a decade of war, the VA projects that more than 1 million active-duty personnel will join the ranks of the nation’s 22 million veterans.

“It is imperative that these men and women have access to quality health care close to home,” Petzel said.

The 70,000-square-foot clinic at 1766 Majestic Lane on the West End is designed to offer many of the services now available at Fort Harrison, Montana’s only VA Hospital. Services include audiology, mental health outpatient surgery, dental, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and eye care.

“Listen to that,” Tester said after ticking off the list of services. “That’s pretty damn good.”

As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester has worked with local veterans and the VA for the past six years to help secure funding to expand the clinic.

This clinic, Tester said, will provide the region’s veterans with some of the best medical care the nation has to offer. “When our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives, return home with wounds of war – both seen and unseen – we must do everything we can to support them and let them know their sacrifices were not in vain.”

Walsh said, “Our men and women in uniform were there when our country needed them most, and now it is time for our country to deliver the benefits they earned.”

For the VA to provide the services this nation promised our veterans, people have to make sure Congress provides enough resources and passes smart legislation to cut the red tape that is causing such a buildup of claims, he added.

Having an array of specialty services will benefit thousands of veterans who might otherwise travel to Fort Harrison, a 500-mile round-trip from Billings, for surgery or other specialty treatments.

Daines said though Montanans are used to driving long distances, veterans should not be forced to make a day’s drive to receive critical treatment, or even a basic checkup.

“Providing access to quality medical care is among the most important promises we’ve made to our veterans and our wounded warriors,” Daines said. “We must ensure these medical centers have the resources they need to provide these men and women with the services they deserve.”

Daines said he hopes the presence of the new facility will encourage veterans to seek the care they need, both for physical ailments, as well as mental health needs.

“It is a godsend,” said Carol Mick, a 61-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Billings.

Vietnam Veteran Len McLelland, 70, of Laurel, said that until now he has traveled to either Fort Harrison or Sheridan, Wyo., for dental services.

“This is just great,” he said. “This is centrally located. It is going to save me time and money.”

Ground was broken in October 2012 on the Majestic Lane Clinic, which triples the size of the existing adjacent clinic at 1775 Spring Creek Lane. The Majestic Lane Clinic is expected to serve an estimated 12,000 veterans from Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, about 2,000 more than are currently served.

The expansion of Billings VA services is bringing about 60 new jobs, with a total of approximately 150 staff for all of VA Health Care in Billings.

Some of the first patients in the new clinic are expected to be those seeking behavioral health services. There is one psychiatrist on staff and telehealth provides access to seven additional psychiatrists. Also on staff are an advanced nurse practitioner, substance use disorders specialist, psychologist, four psychotherapists and other behavioral health professionals.

A suicide prevention coordinator has just been hired at Fort Harrison and will cover the state. Plans call for a similar position in Billings in the near future.

“Caring for veterans with invisible wounds is a top priority for VA,” Petzel said. “Last year, we provided specialized mental health treatment to more than 1.4 million veterans.”

Some veterans have on more than one occasion expressed concern that the new clinic would lack professionals to adequately staff the facility.

Tester, who expressed his own concern to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, told veterans Friday that he has been “assured this place is staffed up.”