New Veterans Affairs clinic in Missoula

An architectural rendering of the new VA clinic in Missoula.

Missoula’s ongoing building boom received another big boost last week with the announcement that the county has landed a major federal infrastructure grant.

The $13 million BUILD grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will get the ball rolling on essential groundwork in a growing area west of Reserve Street. It’s not the $23.2 million the county requested, and it’s not the $40 million it will take to fully cover the area’s infrastructure needs, but it gets Missoula a lot closer than it was previously.

And, just ahead of Veterans Day, it helps lay the foundation for a new Veterans Affairs clinic. Missoulians in general can applaud the teamwork of county government and Montana’s senators in successfully landing the grant, but local veterans in particular have something to look forward to with the promise of an expanded clinic and better care.

Currently, veterans travel from miles away to visit Missoula’s David J. Thatcher VA Clinic, which is located in one of the buildings in the Palmer Street complex. The 20,000-square-foot facility helps provide health exams, lab tests, physical therapy, mental health and social services to the more than 47,000 enrolled veterans in Montana.

Montana has one the highest numbers of veterans per capita in the nation, with more than 93,000 veterans in the state at last count, and nearly 74,000 of them are eligible for care through the VA. However, the Montana Veterans Health Administration faces special challenges in providing care to a population spread out over such a vast region. And those challenges come in addition to the ones facing VA clinics across the nation.

For one, the Veterans Health Administration struggled to fill employee vacancies, retain qualified physicians and keep a sufficient number of support staff. At one point, the VA in Montana held the seventh-highest vacancy rate out of 140 clinic systems, with 152 open positions for doctors, nurses and dentists.

In response, the Trump administration and Congress approved a budget increase for the VA as well as a slate of significant reforms. As a ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, played a key role in crafting these bills.

He was part of a bipartisan group of senators who put together a bill to address the veteran complaint process as well as overburdened clinics. With support from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act received unanimous approval in the Senate and was signed by President Trump in 2017. It included federal funds to help pay for a new facility in Missoula and hire more staff.

The $31 million Community Based Outpatient VA Clinic, expected to break ground on the vacant land next spring and begin providing care by mid-2022, will boast more than 52,500 square feet of usable space, allowing for expanded primary care, mental health care and other specialty services, such as a pharmacy. The new location near the intersection of West Broadway and Flynn Lane will also be easier for veterans traveling from outside the city to access, with increased parking space.

But regular drivers of Flynn Lane are aware that the narrow road that connects West Broadway and Mullan Road, and separates Hellgate Elementary School from the residential neighborhood just across the street, is already seeing more traffic pressure.

In August, a civil engineer with WGM Group noted that an estimated $160 million in new residential, commercial and road development is planned for the region in the next five years alone. A projected 3,000 new homes are expected to be built around Mullan Road. A planned extension of Mary Jane Boulevard is expected to help relieve some of this pressure. The BUILD grant will not only help pave the way for traffic improvements, it will also build the framework for water and sewer services on nearly 1,500 acres of undeveloped land.

Not only did Montana’s senators have a hand in expanding veterans services in Missoula, they also pushed hard to help Missoula land the BUILD grant. Both met with Missoula County commissioners and urged the Transportation Department to award the funds.

“This funding is a big first step for the Missoula BUILD grant project and the community,” said Daines, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a press release announcing the grant. “This project is important for infrastructure in Missoula as it helps in continuing to develop the city, as well as with construction of the new Missoula (veterans clinic). I look forward to continuing to partner with the city of Missoula, and working in Congress, to ensure they receive the full funding they need.”

“This grant is big news for anyone who lives, works, or does businesses in and around Missoula, and I’m glad the federal government agrees,” Tester, also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, stated in his own press release. “It’s a much-needed project that will help make housing more affordable, and improve roads and other infrastructure critical to keep Missoula thriving.”

Missoula County is expected to grow by another 20,000 people over the next two decades. As Missoula continues to grapple with a shortage of affordable housing, it makes sense to encourage thoughtful development in the vacant spaces closest to existing businesses, services and main roads. Better yet, it makes sense to create a comprehensive plan for areas of likely growth, giving current residents a clear idea of what to expect.

Successful efforts to secure a $13 million grant that will significantly defray the costs of building up infrastructure in a key area are cause for commendations in their own right. That a larger, more comprehensive VA clinic is being included as part of the fabric of this planning is an encouraging indication that Missoula is on the right track when it comes to effective planning.

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