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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Tester Reports Progress And Problems With Veterans Care

Fort Harrison VA facility in Helena, MT
Fort Harrison VA facility in Helena, MT

Senator Jon Tester was in Missoula on Veterans day. He released a report he calls the “State of Veterans in Montana,” that looks at vets’ ability to access Veterans Administration health care. Tester says there are now some more VA clinics in Montana.

"But getting those outpatient clinics staffed has been a problem. Making sure we’ve got the docs, nurses, the administrative personnel in those offices has been really tough. That makes the wait times longer, that means veterans not being able to get health care as close to home as they’d like.”

Tester says more Montana veterans are using Montana VA facilities now than back in January, the number of appointments has doubled since then. But wait times for appointments for primary and specialty care are also up substantially.

In Butte for instance, patients are now facing average wait times of over 14 days for primary care. That’s up from a day-and-a-half-wait back in January. For specialty care in Butte, the wait time for an appointment went from zero to over 15 days.

Longer waits to get appointments are also happening in Missoula, Helena, Miles City, Glasgow and Kalispell and other locations.

Still, the only Montanan serving on the Senate Veterans Affairs committee says lots of progress has been made in the past year.

"Funding for the VA used to be discretionary, now it’s mandatory. It used to be one year at a time, now it’s two years at a time. We’ve done certain things that I think have really helped the VA’s predictability, but we still have a long way to go. I can tell you that if we’re going to cut those wait times down – if we’re really going to make some inroads into it - we need to do a better job of recruiting and retaining the medical personnel that work in these VA clinics.”

Tester wants to get more VA staff hired:

"I’ve got a bill that will allow more residencies for folks in Montana and rural America in general. These residencies are for docs who will hopefully stay here – some 1,500 residencies in my bill. If we’re able to do that I think that more docs will be inclined to stay."

Tester thinks a planned addition to Missoula’s VA clinic is only barely adequate to address the patient demand it’s experiencing:

"You gotta do what you have to do. It’s better than not doing anything, but I think they should invest their time and money into getting a facility that meets the needs of the veterans of this region. This is the highest-growing veterans’ population in the state of Montana. It’s growing by double digits. The need is there. It’s not going to go away. The addition will help, but it’s not going to solve the problem."

Tester’s introduced 37 pieces of veteran-related legislation this year and by his own admission, most haven’t gained much traction. He says congress must work harder to improve veterans’ access to healthcare. That said, he also knows an election year is right around the corner and that diminishes the likelihood of that happening:

"I hope not, but that tends to be the case. Most of the good work we tend to do in congress happens the out year of elections. Things (now) tend to get more political. That’s the bad news. The good news is this tends to not be a political issue. So, if we’re able to get things done this year a fair amount of it should revolve around veterans.”

The U.S. Senate this week unanimously passed a funding bill for veterans’ benefits and military construction. There are about 100,000 veterans living in Montana. That’s 10 percent of the state’s population.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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