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VA Secretary Outlines "My VA" Plan At Helena Roundtable

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald

U.S. Senator Jon Tester and Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald are on a two-day tour of the state, visiting VA facilities in Helena, Missoula, and Billings.

Tuesday morning they were at Fort Harrison in Helena. McDonald says it’s the 120th VA facility he’s toured since taking over the troubled agency last July. 

McDonald and Tester sat down with about one hundred veterans and active service members, along with representatives of a range of interest groups, for a round-table discussion.

McDonald says his overall strategy is called "my VA" because he wants America’s veterans to feel a sense of ownership in the agency.

“We want you to think of it as yours.  We want you to think of it as customized for you, and that’s the way we’re going to be.”

McDonald, whose last job was as chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble, has a five step strategy for making "my VA" a reality, starting with putting veterans at the center of everything they do, and ending with forming strategic partnerships that will move the agency forward.

“We’ve asked companies like Disney, Starbucks, Ritz-Carlton to help us train VA employees on delivering better customer service."

McDonald says one of the VA’s biggest problems is also one of the country’s biggest problems: a shortage of doctors, especially in rural parts of the country.

"We don’t have doctors in rural areas. We don’t have primary care physicians in rural areas and we don’t have mental health professionals in rural areas," McDonald said. "So I’m going to the Institute of Medicine, I’m going to the American Medical Association, I’m going of College Deans to try to improve the hiring of doctors for rural areas."

That lack of physicians, specialists in particular, was also on the minds of some panelists at the meeting.  Matt Kuntz is with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He pointed out that a shortage of qualified staff led to the recent closure of the VA’s Acute Mental Health Care Unit in Montana.

"When we have our acute unit shutting down due to lack of psychiatrists, that’s a problem. And when first they couldn’t open it due to lack of psychiatrists, we asked them to start a psychiatric residency program, then they added a few psychiatrists and said it was no longer a problem. And, what do you know...without the infrastructure in place to bring psychiatrists to Montana, the VA is not going to have enough psychiatrists."

Kuntz also told Secretary McDonald that the VA is failing to properly deal with treatment-resistant depression, a problem that plagues many veterans:

"Between twenty and thirty percent of depression is treatment-resistant, and it needs to be planned and treated differently. There’s no plan to do that in Montana. We look at those counselors, those psychiatrists and that veteran like they’re failing but the reality is, that’s a different condition."

Also on the panel was Diane Carlson Evans, former Army nurse and founder of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation, who has worked with Helena veterans who are trying to get a Vet Center in the city.

Vet Centers are community-based centers that offer readjustment counseling for veterans and their families. Carlson Evans said former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki turned down a request to set up a center in Helena, despite a clear need for one.

"Helena, Montana has eight thousand plus veterans in our three-county area. We have a national-guard strength US Army reserve and US Navy reserve of 1,415.  We have active duty military men and women coming back to Helena who would use a Vet Center."

Even some of the remedies the Obama administration has put in place to respond to last year’s VA scandal came under fire at the meeting.

The VA recently sent a “choice” card to veterans across the country,  intended to help them find back-up medical care when the VA’s own hospitals and doctors are unavailable. But Roger Hancock, Montana Commander of the American Legion, said the choice card isn’t working for many vets.

"We’ve had reports of people calling in that number and waiting an hour to get a response back from the VA.  Now, I’m not that patient.  That would have been across the room."

Secretary McDonald couldn’t offer solutions to every complaint voiced by veterans or their representatives at the meeting. But he did point to a new effort to bring veterans’ concerns to the attention of the various branches of the VA. He calls them community councils. They’re advisory groups made up of veterans and representatives of the divisions that manage the VA’s hospitals, benefits, and cemeteries.

"Right now the only place the VA comes together is in the Secretary’s office in Washington, which is ridiculous."

McDonald suggested that Helena might be a good place to set up a community council, whose members would meet once each quarter to review the VA progress on its various goals.

McDonald admits his agency’s recent history is tainted, and many veterans feel it hasn’t delivered on its promises. He says one of his first goals when he was appointed in July was to rebuild trust between the VA and Congress, the American people, and veterans in particular.

That effort continued Wednesday morning in Billings, where McDonald and Tester held another listening session at the Billings Public Library.

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