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Montana VA Reports Good 2018, Promises Progress On Suicide

Veterans suicide prevention hotline.
Montana Veterans Administration

2018 was a good year for veterans health care in Montana, but the Veterans Administration needs to do a better job connecting vets in crisis to help to bring their persistently high suicide rate down. Montana has averaged more than one veteran suicide per week over the last five years.

That assessment is from Dr. Kathy Berger, CEO of the Montana Veterans Health Administration, who gave the agency’s annual “state of the VA” presentation to a couple of dozen people in Helena Tuesday night. She said that, in general, funding is not an issue for the Montana VA. Berger said her budget increased by more than $63 million last year.

ERIC WHITNEY: You feel like Montana VA has the resources it needs to bring the suicide rate down?

KATHY BERGER: I think we do. I think the key is, the community connection.

That community connection, Berger says, means making both veterans, and people across Montana, aware of where to find help.

"If you’re in crisis and you don’t know who to call, by the time you figure that out, five or six hours later, it could be too late. You need that at your fingertips."

To that end, Berger says the VA, in partnership with the mayors of Helena and Billings, are working to expand the reach of a VA telephone information line to Eastern Montana. That 2-1-1 phone number currently only offers links to help from Bozeman West.

"They developed some support groups, they looked at some military culture training and training for some recognition of suicide-type behaviors, or signs and symptoms. So they undertook a lot of initiatives this year for their first year out of the gate."

Berger said that all of the Montana VA’s mental health staff positions are currently filled, and that the number of those types of positions grew last year by about 30. But, she says, the VA, like many other Montana health care organizations, has trouble recruiting primary care doctors and nurses. The Montana VA says it currently has 15 such vacancies, 10 for doctors and five for nurses, stretching from Glasgow to Helena to Kalispell and Missoula.

Berger added that Montana VA operations are unaffected by the federal government shutdown.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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