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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald spent an afternoon at the University of Montana earlier this year to meet with veterans and discuss issues that affect their lives. 

Nearly one-third of Montana’s 99,646 veterans are more than 70 years old, and more than 32,500 of them served in Vietnam, according to a report released Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

The report, “State of Veterans in Montana: A Regional Breakdown,” provides a unique snapshot of the state’s veteran population, known to be one of the highest per capita in the country.

Yet access to health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs is not equal across the state. Several cities, including Missoula and Helena, face large gaps in patient wait times, while the recruitment and retention of doctors and nurses pose challenges for others.

“We’ve done certain things that have helped the VA’s predictability, but we still have a long ways to go,” Tester said in Missoula's City Council Chambers. “If we’re going to cut those wait times down and really make some inroads, we have to do a better job recruiting and retaining the medical personnel.”

According to the report, Helena, Butte and Missoula suffer the longest patient wait times for primary care. Billings, which saw a new $6.3 million clinic open last year, enjoys the shortest patient wait times in the state among large cities at 1.4 days.

In Missoula, where the clinic on Palmer Street offers just 18,000 square feet, patients wait on average 13.6 days for primary care. For two years now, VA officials have talked about the city’s need for a larger clinic.

A search of building permits filed with the city’s Development Services on Wednesday found a remodel and small expansion of the local VA clinic on Palmer Street. According to the VA, it will add 4,500 square feet to the clinic.

“This is an addition to the facility that we currently have, but it’s not adequate or long term,” Tester said. “I think they (VA) should invest their time and money into getting a facility that really meets the needs of the veterans of this region.”

Those talks also have been ongoing. The General Services Administration deemed it unfeasible to convert the vacant Federal Building in downtown Missoula to a new outpatient clinic for the Montana VA Health Care System.

Tester said efforts to fund a larger clinic on a long-term basis will continue.

“Missoula has the highest growing veteran population in the state of Montana,” he said. “It’s growing double digits. The need is there and it’s not going to go away."

“The addition is going to help, but it’s certainly not going to solve the problem,” he added. “They need a facility that is much bigger than what they have.”

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