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Montana VA Director Gives System Good Grade

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

Dr. Kathy Berger delivered her first ‘State of the Montana VA’ address Friday in Helena, after being named the health system’s director last fall.

Berger is the third director of Montana Veterans Affairs since 2014. Montana’s congressional delegation has long expressed frustration at turnover at the agency.

Speaking to more than 50 of her staff and veterans at Helena College Friday, Berger said the veteran healthcare system is meeting most of its goals for veterans not to wait more than 30 days for treatment and the state’s VA system ranks better than most regional hospitals when comparing healthcare results.

That comparison data includes information like infection rates, complications during and after surgery, accidents during treatment, and overall hospital rating.

“Of nine of the 13 categories Montana leads the regional hospitals, so we are either number one or number two in nine of the 13 of those measures," Berger said. "And we exceed the regional averages for some of those as well. We’re in the top ten percent for eight of the 13 categories and top 25 percent in two or more.”

The Montana VA falls below regional healthcare averages in two areas: abdomen and pelvis wound splits after surgery and serious blood clots after surgery.

For overall hospital ranking, the state VA aligns closely, although a touch under, with a couple of the largest healthcare providers in Montana: St Vincent Healthcare and Billings Clinic.

However, not included in the national VA comparison study were other large providers in the state, including Kalispell Regional Medical Center, Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls, and St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center in Missoula, and St. James Hospital in Butte.

Out of the 23 health care providers considered in Montana and Wyoming, the Montana VA ranked 11th overall.

“But overall we are quite pleased with how Montana VA ranks in the quality healthcare indicators that we score with our regional partners," Berger said.

As of September there were over 98,000 veterans in Montana, making up a little over nine percent of the state’s population.

Since reports in 2014 revealed systemic problems within the national VA system of long waiting lists for veterans seeking medical treatment, the issue has remained a hot topic in VA departments in states.

Berger’s annual report showed that all of Montana’s VA clinics meet best practice policy of getting new patients evaluated for mental health care within 30 days. All but two of the clinics, in Great Falls and Missoula, meet that standard for initial primary care appointments.

Berger says staffing positions left unfilled in the VA contributed to longer waiting times for veterans in Montana and she says that all of the primary care vacancies are expected to be filled by the end of the year.

The ‘State of the VA’ presentation also included a brief update on new construction and expansion projects at Fort Harrison and around the state. Berger says the VA is in the beginning stages of a major project to fix seismic deficient buildings on Fort Harrison after recent earthquakes in the area caused damage.

Berger says there are plans in place to more than double the size of the VA clinic in Missoula, but funding for it may not come for several years.

“Once we expand the services that will be included in that new building it will be considered a health care center much like Billings," Berger said. "It will add some new programs and services including radiology, pathology, dental gastroenterology, prosthetics, sterile processing and home based primary care. So this will be a sizable expansion.”

Within the next year, Berger says the the Montana VA will add a new position for mental health services to focus more on suicide prevention.

According to VA data, while the number of completed suicides among veterans in Montana has gone down in recent years, there are more attempts being made. In 2016, 132 veterans attempted suicide in this state, 33 of those attempts were successful.

The ‘State of the VA’ presentation lasted just under 45 minutes.

Kim Kay McCarty Martin was among the crowd that filtered out of the Helena College Lecture Hall. McCarty Martin is Navy vet from Great Falls who’s mostly interested to see how the Montana VA is taking care of its female veterans.

“The women's healthcare system is broken in the VA," Martin said. "I believe it has been broken for a couple years. And it seems they don't seem to be too much of a hurry to fix it. And woman veterans are becoming one of the fastest growing percentages of veterans in Montana.”

During Director Berger’s presentation she mentioned that women veterans now make up 9 percent of all vets in the state, and that percentage is growing.

As of last week, the Montana VA brought a full time gynecologist on staff, according to VA officials. That hire was made after the state VA had been without a full time gynecologist for more than a year, although there are trained women's health primary physicians at VA centers across the state.

When I spoke with McCarty Martin, she was unaware of the new gynecologist that will split time between Billings and Helena.

Morgan Hally from the Fort Belknap Reservation is currently staying at the hospital on Fort Harrison. He showed up to the presentation because he’s just generally curious about his VA benefits.

“I heard about this meeting so I wanted to come. I’m glad they have this urge to build more buildings. I had to travel 300 miles to get here,” Hally said.

The presentation Friday evening did not include a formal public comment period. Although VA officials were available for one-on-one questions after the ‘State of the VA’ address.

The American Legion is hosting a town hall meeting October 23 for veterans to share their experiences with the Montana VA. The town hall will be held tonight at 6, at the American Legion Department of Montana Post #2, in Helena.

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