HELENA, Mont. — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs to do more to make sure Montana veterans get the health care they need in a timely fashion, VA Secretary Robert McDonald told veterans in Helena on Tuesday.
"We recognize the importance of Montana, the second highest per capita of veteran population in the country," he said.
McDonald said efforts are underway to hire health care providers in the state, a cardiology nurse was recently hired in Billings and several urologists for Billings and Helena.
He said they're working to recruit and hire primary care doctors and those specializing in mental health, particularly in rural areas of the state. McDonald spoke and answered veterans' questions along with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester at the Montana National Guard headquarters near Helena's Fort Harrison VA hospital.
Montana is the 20th state McDonald has visited since July, when he replaced Eric Shinseki who resigned last year in a scandal in which employees throughout the VA's massive hospital system conspired to hide monthslong wait times for veterans seeking care.
An audit released last year showed patients seeking care through the Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs Medical Center had been waiting an average of 48 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor — more than three times longer than the department's goal of 14 days. The audit was ordered after an uproar that began with reports of patients dying while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA center.
Tester praised McDonald's permanent hiring of Montana VA Health Care acting director John Ginnity in February and said he appreciates McDonald's efforts to address problems within the VA.
"He is a guy that's not afraid of work, obviously, and is very very much committed to veterans," Tester said.
McDonald and Tester are also meeting with veterans in Missoula and Billings and said they'd be meeting with a delegation of lawmakers on a bill tabled in committee this week that would have helped pay for the construction of a new Montana veterans home in Butte.
Roger Hancock, Montana American Legion commander, told McDonald he's heard of long wait times for mental health care and that it needs to be remedied, especially when veterans are suicidal.
"We need to get these people in and we need to lead them to acute care, whether Fort Harrison has the capability or not, we need to send (them) somewhere immediately," he said.
McDonald said the Montana VA is working to contract with more psychiatrists, in addition to building capability for outpatient surgery services, providing more telemedicine services and developing a service to transport veterans to VA facilities for care.
As the VA continues its reforms and reorganization, a fresh report came this week from the VA Office of Inspector General detailing data manipulation at an office in Honolulu. The report says a supervisor last year made it look like the agency was processing veterans' benefits claims faster than it actually was.
McDonald said Tuesday that he had not seen that report, but over 80 inspector general investigations are underway and related reports are coming out daily.
"We are holding people accountable for those reports," he said referring to a VA director in Philadelphia who was recently let go in part due to an adverse investigation report.
McDonald also announced that $93 million in VA grants will be made available across the country for community organizations to help end veteran homelessness. Montana will receive $6 million to help about 1,125 low-income veterans and their families in rural areas and on reservations over a three-year period, he said.