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Tester, VA Director Clash Over 'Closure' Of Psych Unit

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The acting director of veterans health care in Montana is on the defensive after Senator Jon Tester said the VA health center in Helena is temporarily closing its inpatient mental health unit.

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald in Washington, Tester said, “staffing levels at the VA in Montana are at the point where it can no longer safely staff the eight bed acute inpatient section of the mental health facility at Ft. Harrison” in Helena.

Johnny Ginnity, acting director at Ft. Harrison says, that doesn’t mean the mental health ward is being closed.

“It’s not going to be open, it’s not going to be closed. We’re going to pause to refer care downtown to re-evaluate and make sure we have the right staff in place to do the best by the veteran.”

Ginnity says the acute, inpatient unit is for suicidal, psychotic or out of control patients, and that it currently has one patient. He says its eight beds have gone unused about 65 percent of the time over the last two years, and that Ft Harrison is evaluating how to best staff it.

Senator Tester is also upset that the VA hasn’t found a permanent director for the Montana VA, a job that’s been open for eight months. Tester says the vacancy and staffing challenges are threatening the credibility of the VA in Montana.

Ginnity says it’s too soon to make any announcement about his possible permanent replacement.

“It’s at the last stage in the process. So, hopefully we’ll hear something here in the next couple of weeks.”

Senator Tester invited VA secretary McDonald to visit Montana, and he’s agreed to come in the Spring. Ginnity says he looks forward to that visit, which he says will come in March. Ginnity says it will be a good opportunity to show him the challenges rural states like Montana have when it comes to staffing VA health care facilities.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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