Veterans, Montana Leaders push back on VA Report About Clinic Closures

Veterans, Montana Leaders push back on VA Report About Clinic Closures

Here in Montana, there are some big changes coming for vets' health care facilities in a new federal report. However, each of the above scenarios will take time to become a reality.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs released its Asset and Infrastructure Review report, an exhaustive analysis of VA facilities across the country and recommendations on how to get the VA ready to serve vets in the future.

Reports recommend the closing of some VA clinics in Montana, though officials want to stress that no changes will be made immediately to the operation of the clinics.

“I want to emphasize—they're recommendations,” said Dr. Judy Hayman, executive director of the Montana VA Healthcare System. "A year-long process will be underway, to determine what recommendations are sent to the president. Some might not be sent."

It hasn't affected how they're updating their facilities, Hayman says.

She reported that the agency was expanding services throughout the state.

VA clinics are spread across Montana. It is recommended that all four of these clinics, located in Browning, Glasgow, and Plentywood, as well as the Miles City Community Living Center, be closed. Also, they suggest turning the emergency department at the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center into an urgent care center and dropping outpatient surgical services at a Billings health facility.

Report says buildings mentioned for closure don't get much use. During fiscal year 2019, they logged just over 2,000 primary care visits and 150 mental health visits at the Glasgow clinic, and 369 primary care and 39 mental health visits at the Plentywood clinic.

According to the recommendations, services could be transferred to other community providers. Veteran advocates, however, express concern about that approach, particularly in rural Montana. Commander of the Montana American Legion says outside providers might not have the same expertise in mental and behavioral health care for veterans.

In the present state of affairs, the federal government outsources many aspects of health care to the community. That's fine for tests and X-rays, but not for extended care.”

Visiting the VA may be quite different for veterans, according to Sharbono.

He said it helps when veterans are among themselves, they're more willing to listen and understand than say a bunch of civilians.

Veterans Affairs officials say this process is intended to help them identify ways to maintain the veterans' healthcare system in the future. The leaders say they have to deal with aging facilities, shifting veteran populations and making the switch to more outpatient care.

Each VA market is analysed in the report. This analysis began in Montana in 2019. So many of the recommendations are already outdated, asking for things that have already happened and are happening now.

It was a form of validation for everything we did, explained Hayman.

In its recommendations, the VA suggests a new, bigger VA clinic in Missoula, but the VA just opened a new one in January. Also, they suggest building a new clinic in Butte to replace the existing one in Anaconda. We're opening one soon in Butte. Montana Veterans Affairs has opened seven new clinics across the state in the past few years, most recently in Bozeman last week.

Hayman said Montana VA is seeking a new place for Miles City CLC, to replace the decades-old current building.

A VA asset and infrastructure review is required by the 2018 VA Mission Act, a law enacted into law by then-President Donald Trump after passing Congress on a bipartisan basis. In statements, Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines express concern about the possibility of service reductions following these recommendations. Apparently, they'll have a lot to say as the process moves forward.

It is unacceptable to have the VA under Biden recommend closing veteran clinics across Montana because it illustrates how out of touch federal policymakers are with rural America," Daines said. "The Biden administration can't ignore the unique challenges rural health clinics face, and should take their issues into account before closing them. The facilities in question provide critical care to Montana's brave men and women who served our nation, and I will not relinquish my fight to ensure that they have reliable access to the care they need.

Tester said, "Some people look at a proposal as a termination of a building; that's not true.". The matter will be decided by the Congress. It was directed that the VA submit a proposal regarding its study of assets and infrastructure to determine what was not required. Those proposals must now be held accountable - what metrics did they use, when were the surveys done, were doctors in those offices - and then we have to talk to veterans. It is our responsibility to assure that their needs are met if they are going to use the services.

Vice-president Biden nominated members for the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission. Senate confirmation is also required. Those recommendations will be heard - including in any region they're considering closing - before the commission makes a final recommendation.

Once the commission finishes its recommendations, the president and Congress will weigh in

too. Ultimately, it seems likely that final decisions will come at least a year from now - and possibly even longer.

When leaders consider how to proceed on these bills, Sharbono hopes they keep Montana veterans in mind.

He said our promise to our veterans must be kept. Health care must be our main priority for veterans above all else. That's something we've been promised since Abraham Lincoln. They ship us off, they promise to bring us back in one piece, and if not, then fix what's broken. That's all we're asking.