VA Town Hall with VA Sec. and Tester

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald addresses a question from the audience during a town hall meeting in which the secretary and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., led a panel discussion at Montana National Guard headquarters near Helena's Fort Harrison VA hospital.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced a bill Thursday aimed at easing workforce shortages in the Department of Veterans Affairs that would, among other things, set up mental health residency programs in rural and underserved areas.

Designed to address what Tester called problems that "have plagued the VA for years," the Delivering Opportunities for Care and Services for Veterans Act includes plans to work with local groups to establish residency programs, boost loan repayment for those who work in rural areas, address leadership vacancies and improve recruitment.

"We have to make sure this is a high priority," Tester said Thursday during a telephone conference with Montana reporters about the measure.

Chief among the bill's goals is to bring in more mental health professionals, with help from a number of sources.

"This bill enhances opportunities for the VA to partner with local affiliates to establish additional residency programs," Tester said.

He said that partnering with local groups, such as Billings Clinic, across the country and working with Indian Health Service to establish those mental health residency programs will play a key role in those efforts.

Dr. Eric Arzubi, Billings Clinic's chair of psychiatry, joined Tester on Thursday's call and said that with Montana's high veteran and Native populations, along with high suicide rates, in a more rural setting, such legislation is necessary.

"We have a clear crisis and this is the kind of crisis that we really can't tackle by ourselves," he said. "We have to work together ... the VA is the biggest provider of health care in the U.S. It's just another reason that we need to collaborate."

He cited psychiatric residency programs like one in Boise that works with an education track through the University of Washington to send residents to the area for two years. It is funded by the Boise VA and partnering hospitals.

Of the 16 graduates from that program, 10 stayed in Idaho and keeping properly trained professionals is a key goal of the bill, Arzubi said.

Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, echoed those thoughts, saying he was excited about the bill and that properly trained professionals are key in filling VA workforce shortages.

"Psychiatrists are desperately necessary to the success of the VA," he said. "If we don't have them, we actually need to build the pipeline to get them."

Tester said that, if the bill passes, residency programs could start up in a year to 15 months.

Other provisions of the bill focus on improving recruitment, the process of filling open leadership positions – especially in VA facilities and networks – and making those positions more competitive with similar ones in the private sector, including through pay.

"We don't want another 10-month gap like we had with (recently hired Montana VA Director) Johnny Ginnity," Tester said. "It shouldn't happen in Montana and it shouldn't happen in the VA."

It also includes what Tester described as "common sense reforms that remove barriers" to addressing shortages such as adding new types of counselors and therapists to its programs and conducting assessments of ongoing work to fix the workforce problems.

The DOCS for Veterans Act is co-sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. Tester noted that it also has wide-ranging support from more than a dozen medical and military advocacy groups.

"I think we've got great critical mass around it, and I think we're going to get a ton of sponsors," he said.

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