The Department of Veterans Affairs and its Montana Health Care System is looking at the old federal building in downtown Missoula as a possible future clinic, and veterans in Hamilton will soon receive face-to-face evaluations without leaving the Bitterroot Valley, agency officials said Wednesday night.

Johnny Ginnity, acting director of the Montana VA, joined a panel of employees from the Veterans Health Administration on Wednesday night to answer questions submitted by vets.

The evening was part of a larger national outreach effort ordered by VA Secretary Robert McDonald as he moves to close the gap of distrust between veterans who rely on VA care and the massive federal agency that provides it.

“Health care needs to be a proactive environment,” Ginnity said. “We are addressing some concerns as we move forward, and as we address those concerns, it slows you down a little. But I’m excited to have the team we have right now.”

The panel of VA officials took a conciliatory tone Wednesday as they sat before the estimated 120 veterans in attendance. As individual issues arose, Ginnity said he would get answers within 48 hours.

Ginnity replaced Christine Gregory who resigned this past May after 16 months on the job. Other VA employees present at the town hall discussion told vets they deserved to get their questions answered and not get the runaround, which many have reported experiencing in recent years.

“If there are any issues that arise that you don’t get answers to, you can always come to me,” Don Porter, the registered clinical care coordinator for western Montana, told one veteran. “You don’t need to be left in the dark to wait for answers.”

Ginnity also addressed the lack of space that’s plagued the Missoula Community Based Outpatient Clinic for years. The 18,000-square-foot facility, located on Palmer Street, has been targeted for an expansion for years, but the work has been stalled by red tape.

Ginnity said federal policy typically allows VA clinics to grow by 24 percent without needing the approval of the VA secretary. He said the Montana VA planned to expand the Missoula clinic to 22,000 square feet before the General Services Administration stepped in and stopped the project.

Ginnity said the GSA found the Montana VA in violation of federal policy since it was leasing space on the open market without first seeking available space owned by the GSA. The issue was resolved and the Montana VA now plans to expand its Palmer Street clinic in four to six months – landlord permitting.

“Down the road, we are looking at the federal building downtown,” Ginnity said. “It’s a challenge. Financially it looks expensive, but the GSA has been supportive.”

Ginnity said Montana VA officials met with the GSA last week to discuss the downtown site’s utilities and overall feasibility. He said the retrofit is still 18 months away, but plans to provide a 55,000 square-foot clinic are moving forward.

The two clinics in Billings are nearly four times the size of what’s available in Missoula, though Missoula has nearly as many veterans.

“We have been assured that parking will be made available to us,” Ginnity said of the future downtown site. “There will be dedicated parking, and transportation if that parking is too far away. We wouldn’t consider a move forward until they (GSA) guaranteed the opportunity to take care of parking.”

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Dr. Daryl Callahan, a physician with the VA, said the clinic in Hamilton also will begin offering face-to-face evaluations in March. The clinic currently serves as a tele-health clinic where veterans are evaluated remotely over a video screen.

“We’re going to be expanding in Hamilton,” Callahan said. “We’re making that transition over the next few weeks. By 9 March, our nurse practitioner will be doing face-to-face evaluations for us.”

Before the event began at the Armed Forces Readiness/Reserve Center west of Missoula, veterans submitted questions in writing.

One man asked why veterans admitted to the post traumatic stress disorder residency unit at Fort Harrison weren’t considered an “admitted patient,” a fact that leaves family members to search for off-based lodging while the veteran receives care.

Another asked why she was denied a Choice Card. The cards were created by Congress in November, allowing vets to receive non-VA care if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility.

While well intended, many agreed the act doesn’t work well in Montana. The VA panel said it expects the law to change in the coming months.

“The 40 mile requirement is a straight line from your residence to any VA facility,” said Todd Dunlap, the enrollment coordinator for VA Montana. “There’s talk at the congressional level to rewrite the law to allow VA Montana to waive that 40-mile straight-line requirement based on geography.

“There’s a straight line across Flathead Lake that doesn’t exist here but it does in an office back East. VA Montana should have the waiver capability to allow Flathead Valley residents to get care locally.”

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