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John Ginnity, the director

of VA Montana Health Care System, talks with veterans and their families after a town hall meeting in Missoula in this file photo from January.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester this week expressed concern over the lack of a permanent VA Montana director, and said morale and staffing continue to hamper the state agency nearly a year after the Inspector General gave it low marks in the categories.

Tester voiced his concerns in a two-page letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald this week. While he praised McDonald for bringing renewed energy and focus to the federal agency, he also outlined several issues that need to be resolved.

Among them, Tester said he had concerns regarding the role third-party vendors play in the VA, particularly as they pertain to the Choice Program. Congress created the program in November, allowing vets to receive care closer to home.

Tester, a ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, said the use of third-party vendors confuses vets and doesn’t hold the VA directly accountable.

“This outsourcing has hampered oversight efforts because it allows the VA to point the finger of blame directly at vendors while absolving itself of any responsibility for program shortcomings,” Tester said. 

Tester also voiced concern over lingering workforce issues within the VA Montana Health Care System. The VA Inspector General’s report, released last May, scored the Montana VA 118th out of 128 facilities in its high rate of turnover among registered nurses.

It also ranked the Montana VA 126th for employee satisfaction – a score that places it near the bottom of the nation’s 128 facilities. Tester said nurse turnover, recruitment and retention, and employee morale remain problematic.

“I continue to be frustrated by workforce issues at the VA Montana Health Care System that are dramatically impacting the ability of veterans in my state to access quality and timely care,” Tester said. “In my opinion, many of these issues stem directly from the fact that VA Montana has been without a permanent director for eight months.”

Former VA Montana director Christine Gregory retired last June. Upon her departure, John Ginnity was named the state’s acting director.

A month later, the congressional liaison for VA Montana told the Missoulian that an executive committee planned to review several candidates for the permanent job and refer them to the Veterans Health Administration for consideration.

At the time, the liaison said the VA’s Corporate Senior Executive Management Office couldn’t discuss the hiring process or the candidates. Nothing has been announced since.

Tester called the delay unacceptable.

“This prolonged vacancy has impeded the ability of VA Montana to take strong action, to make long-term decisions, and to implement the dramatic reforms necessary for the VA to meet the demands of veterans in the state,” Tester said. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the status quo will simply not cut it.”

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