Bruce Knutson

Bruce Knutson, Sen. Jon Tester's liaison for the Department of Veterans Affairs, talked with City Club Missoula about the changes taking place within the VA Health Care System on Monday. 

While more must be done to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs and its massive health care system, the program has made progress since falling under national scrutiny for lying about wait times, Bruce Knutson told members of City Club Missoula on Monday.

Knutson, VA liaison for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said information gathered during past listening sessions held across the state helped Tester include language in recent bills to improve the system, including the VA reform bill.

Winter weather left Tester stranded in Big Sandy on Monday.

“The best ideas come from the ground,” Knutson said on the senator's behalf. “Montanans know best how to improve care for the VA.”

VA Secretary Robert McDonald told “60 Minutes” on Sunday that the VA needs to hire 28,000 medical providers nationally to help decrease wait times.

Knutson added that 2,500 more mental health providers are also needed. While many of those professionals are needed in Montana, Knutson said, there is insufficient space to house them.

“Right now, the Missoula clinic is too small,” said Knutson. “It’s 18,000 square feet and needs to be expanded to 50,000 square feet. If I could take the Billings clinic and drop it in Missoula, I would.”

Knutson offered no timeline on when the VA clinic in Missoula would be expanded. Back in February, Tester urged then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to expedite the process. In May, the VA told the Missoulian the efforts were still ongoing, but has said nothing since.

Even so, Knutson said, new VA recruiting efforts are moving forward to help attract quality staff and to make the agency more competitive with the private sector. The VA is offering doctors and nurses more perks to make the job more appealing.

“Tester helped write language allowing the VA to pay back student loans for VA medical providers,” Knutson said. “It offers more incentive and allows the VA to compete with the private sector for skilled doctors and nurses.”

Knutson said it’s easier to recruit doctors and nurses in metro areas like Missoula than it is in Glasgow and Montana’s rural reaches – a fact that led Tester to include measures in the VA reform bill.

Among them, Knutson named the new Choice Card. That measure enables vets facing long waits and who live 40 miles from the nearest VA facility to receive care from non-VA providers.

Rural access also helped create Project ARCH, or Access Received Closer to Home. The two-year pilot program is being closely watched, Knutson said.

“The first measure of the reform bill was an extension of Project ARCH,” Knutson said. “Veterans who live long distances from a VA facility can now access care from a non-VA provider without driving hundreds of miles.”

Knutson briefly rehashed the VA debacle that unfolded earlier this year, prompting a comprehensive investigation by the independent inspector general and an access audit by the VA.

Stemming from that investigation, the reform bill authorized the VA to fire underperforming employees, including senior executives. McDonald told "60 Minutes" that the VA has taken disciplinary action against 5,600 employees in the past year.

“There’s been a hiring freeze for administrators and staff, so the VA can now focus on hiring medical professionals and address the backlog,” Knutson said. “Even with all these changes, there’s more work to do be done.”

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