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Veterans Give VA Healthcare Mixed Reviews During Helena Meeting

More than 40 veterans took turns sharing stories about using the Veteran Affairs healthcare system during a meeting at the American Legion Post in Helena October 23, 2017.
Corin Cates-Carney
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More than 40 veterans took turns sharing stories about using the Veteran Affairs healthcare system during a meeting at the American Legion Post in Helena October 23, 2017.

Inside American Legion Post #2 in Helena Monday night, more than 40 veterans took turns sharing stories of using the Veteran Affairs healthcare system, highlighting chronic issues, with the occasional kudos for specialized veteran care.

The town hall kicks off a week of closed door meetings between American Legion members and Montana VA leaders to hear updates on the agency and discuss improvements for veteran treatment.

"The VA healthcare system is truly a system worth saving," says Kelly Ackerman, a veterans service officer with the American Legion of Montana.

The Legion launched their "System Worth Saving" campaign in 2006. Leaders have hosted town halls all over the country trying to identify gaps in care and services, direct best practices and learn more about the overall performance of the VA nationwide.

"We need to hear what your concerns are," Ackerman says. "We also want to hear what is working well, if you have a praise to give the VA, we want to hear that too. This isn’t just to hear complaints. From these visits, a report is created which is presented to the administration, Congress, VA leadership, and fellow legionnaires, and eventually to the president of the united states."

The town hall Monday night lasted a little under two hours.

A flyer for the "System Worth Saving" town hall meeting on VA healthcare in Helena.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
/
A flyer for the "System Worth Saving" town hall meeting on VA healthcare in Helena.

"The VA — I’m very blunt — has gone downhill drastically in the last, I would say, eight years," says Tom Johnson, commander of the VFW post in East Helena.

Although he’s critical of how the VA is running, he says it's too good of a thing to lose. He says he worries that it's focusing too much on outpatient care and talk of possible privatization of veteran health care services.

Johnson says at least once a month he visits with patients getting treatment at Fort Harrison, just to see how they’re doing.

"And overall, for the most part, those patients have nothing but praise for the hospital out there, for the medical care they’re receiving. But on the downside, trying to get in for appointments, scheduling, administrative stuff — and this is a big concern of mine — primary care physicians."

This was a common theme throughout the evening. Once veterans receive care, it's often great, but the hoops they have jump through to get in for treatment can be overwhelming and even turn some vets off from wanting to go to the VA for help.

About a year ago Dr. Kathy Berger became the third permanent director of the Montana VA in three years. Montana’s congressional delegation has expressed frustration at turnover and persistent vacancies.

Last Friday, Berger said her agency is working on cutting down on wait times, and she expects to fill all the current primary care staff vacancies by the end of the year.

But Ray Read, a Helena veteran, told the town hall Monday that he isn’t confident in the VA's promise.

"Ha, no way. I think I could probably make a great bet on that one," he said.

Read also said an app created by the VA to help  schedule appointments isn’t very user-friendly for some of the older veterans.

This was a common theme throughout the evening. Once veterans receive care, it's often great, but the hoops they have jump through to get in for treatment can be overwhelming and even turn some vets off from wanting to go to the VA for help.

Several vets complained about the Veteran's Choice program. It was launched in 2014 to reduce wait times and help rural vets get care closer to home at private clinics.

John Jackson says when he recently needed his hearing checked after his service working in artillery, he eventually got help but the process was unacceptable.

"I did not keep a log of what I went through to get an appointment. I wish I would have kept a log, because I can’t remember how many phone calls I made, how many times I sat on the phone for almost an hour waiting for somebody to answer. But I am tenacious about how to work the system, and not every veteran has that desire or has that drive to do that. It should be instantaneous and 100 percent care for that veteran, especially some of the elderly veterans who might have a little more of a challenge to understand the intricacies of how the system works," Jackson says.

While many vets like the idea of being able to get care from non-VA providers close to where they live, several said there’s no substitute for the kind of care the VA itself can provide; knowing they’ll understand you as veteran.

Karen Semple is a veteran in Helena who recently took her husband to the VA emergency room. He is a 100 percent disabled vet. The physician on duty was also a veteran.

"It made all the difference in the world for how he was treated. That is a fantastic connection you can't always get in the civilian world. This is really important to us to not get funneled into the civilian world where people don’t understand your mentality because you're a veteran," Semple said.

As each veteran stood up to tell their story, the veterans sitting around them, usually wearing a cap to mark their years service, nodded in agreement or shook their heads in shared frustration.

National American Legion representatives say what they heard from Montana veterans is very similar to the concerns they're hearing elsewhere around the country.

The head of the Montana VA, Dr. Kathy Berger sat in the front row of the town hall Monday night, with two of her staff taking notes beside her.

The state VA director and her staff will continue to meet with American Legion members throughout the week to discuss options for improving veteran healthcare.

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