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SandraMatic

Montana veterans continue to face unacceptable obstacles to health care services. It is a national disgrace that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency responsible for ensuring our veterans receive the care they so undeniably deserve, is oftentimes to blame.

This is painfully apparent in Montana, which has one of the highest rates of veterans per capita in the nation.

Consider:

  • The Montana Veterans Administration facilities at Billings, Fort Harrison and Great Falls were among the 110 centers - out of 1,700 sites - flagged for followup audits after a federal audit last year revealed unacceptably long wait times for medical appointments.
  • Facilities across the state continue to be understaffed and underequipped for the number of veterans they serve. The clinic in Missoula, in particular, is woefully inadequate and overdue for expansion.
  • Montana VA does not employ a single certified medical examiner, whose certification is necessary for veterans to obtain a commercial driver's license.
  • A new VA Montana director still has not been named. One was supposed to be selected by the end of 2014.

Incredibly, this past week brought even more bad news.

Starting at the end of this month, Missoula veterans who reside at two assisted-living centers that have canceled contracts with the Montana VA will have to find some other way to pay for their housing and care – or some other place to live.

At the same time, VA Montana is "temporarily" closing its eight-bed acute care mental health unit in Helena because of "chronic workforce shortages." The shortage apparently came about after two mental health providers retired and a third resigned to take a different job. It speaks volumes that the VA has been chronically unable to hire and retain a sufficient number of workers to provide essential health services.

It's little wonder that the Goodman Group, which owns Village Health Care Center and Hillside Manor in Missoula, as well as another facility in Montana, opted not to continue its contractual relationship with the VA. A spokesman for the group cited extensive new federal requirements as one reason why the contractor decided not to accept payments from the VA any longer.

Once again, veterans are the victims of bureaucratic machinations beyond their control.

One thing Montana veterans do have going for them is the steadfast advocacy of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who has remained dedicated to veterans' issues throughout his time in Congress. He has regularly sponsored and pushed for legislation benefiting veterans since taking office in 2007, including most recently the Clay Hunt SAV Act signed by the president on Thursday. Tester was one of the original cosponsors of the veterans suicide prevention bill.

Tester is also a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and a ranking member of the subcommittee that determines the VA's budget. Speaking from that position, Tester's office announced this week that the senator plans to host VA Secretary Robert McDonald on a visit to Montana this spring.

But first, Tester sent a strongly worded letter to McDonald expressing frustration with the fact that Montana still does not have an acting director and that veterans are losing access to health care because the VA does not employ enough medical providers.

He was joined in this effort by fellow U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who also sent a letter to McDonald.

Of course, these problems are not unique to Montana. Indeed, the extent and ongoing nature of the VA's challenges led the U.S. Government Accountability Office decided to include the agency in its most recent High-Risk report.

The High-Risk series is done every two years to highlight which government operations are most in need of reforms. Veterans Affairs health care is considered a priority because the GAO has been tracking the agency's problems providing timely care since 2000. The new report notes that although the VA has taken action to resolve some issues, "more than 100 of GAO's recommendations have not been fully addressed."

Further, the report states that the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act – another congressional measure championed by Tester – would go a long way toward the VA overcome certain "systemic weaknesses." But the act, enacted last year, has yet to be fully implemented by the VA.

It's just one more sign that the VA isn't getting the message.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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