Duane Cunningham, a veteran of the Navy, moved to Montana in 1993 for the vast mountainous landscape. But the reason the Veterans Affairs coordinator moved here is also one of the biggest obstacles getting in the way of providing adequate care for the state’s veterans.
“Imagine telling someone in Maine that they had to go see a doctor in North Carolina. That’s what it is like here,” he said. “There are some things that work well, but things that are logistically difficult.”
Cunningham’s concerns were the subject of a roundtable discussion with United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough. The former chief of staff for President Barack Obama and freshly appointed secretary traveled to Montana with Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the senate veterans’ affairs committee.
On Wednesday, the two were joined by Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale at the Montana Army National Guard Headquarters for a listening session. The stop was a continuation of previous stops in Billings, Bozeman, and Butte earlier this week.
Tester and McDonough also toured and spoke with employees of the new $12 million primary clinic on the base that opened Tuesday. The nearly 20,000 square feet clinic will provide primary and mental health care, along with other services, for around 5,000 veterans in the area.
The four officials heard from stakeholders, including veterans, local officials, and medical professionals, who said while things are working in some aspects, more needs to be done to address access to care, specifically mental health care.
McDonough recognized the challenges Montana faces in providing care to its veterans but said there needs to be more faith in the system.
“I am gravely concerned about the lack of access to mental health [care], and we have a lot of work to do. This is a monumental challenge,” McDonough said.
Rosendale agreed that access is important. He said he is looking at alternatives, like telehealth, which has been expanded during the pandemic, to provide rural veterans with mental health care.
McDonough also noted money included in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package would go to help upgrade VA resources and facilities.
Specifically, $14.5 billion of the package was allocated to help vaccinate veterans, with hundreds of millions more going to a slew of other services like unemployment assistance for veterans and health care copayment relief.
With around one million total residents and 100,000 veterans, Montana has one of the highest rates of veterans per capita in the country.
Because of Montana’s size and topography, the state was chosen to be part of a series of programs studying effective vaccine distribution in highly rural areas, McDonough said, adding that nationally the VA has administered more than 2.5 million vaccines.
However, McDonough said he is still worried about hesitancy surrounding the vaccine and adequate messaging to rural vets to alert them of their eligibility.
“We want to make sure that they’re in touch with their provider to get that vaccination scheduled,” he said.
Daines’ echoed the secretary’s concerns.
“We’re probably a few weeks away from having an abundant number of vaccines, and the issue will be getting more folks signed up to take the vaccine. We just need to make sure that our veterans know it’s safe, it’s effective, it will save lives … and we encourage our veterans to get the vaccine,” he said.
During the discussion, Tester received positive feedback for securing the inclusion of his Care and Readiness Enhancement for Reservists Act, or CARE Act, in the final National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2021.
The law would expand access to veterans centers and all Guardsmen and reservists to receive mental health services, regardless of whether they have been deployed.
“Montana veterans swore an oath to protect our country, and they deserve high-quality care and benefits in return for their sacrifices,” Tester said in a press release about the listening session.
McDonough said not enough veterans are filing claims and coming to the VA for help, which hinders its ability to be as effective as possible.
“I want to get to a point where vets have enough trust and confidence in the system … now vets feel they will not get a fair shake, so they don’t even file [a claim],” he said. “The reason I want vets to file a claim is that the claims themselves are a source of intel for us to understand what’s happening to them.”
Late last month, Congress gave the VA expanded authority to vaccinate veterans, spouses and caregivers.
“I take that as a great vote of confidence in the VA capacity,” he said. “And I want our vets in rural communities to see that too and to urge them to take a second look at us.”
From the Helena Independent Record: Montana veterans who would like to verify their eligibility to receive a COVID-19 vaccine under the new law, must contact (877) 468-8387 and select Option 2, and then Option 2 again. This includes Priority 8e and 8g Veterans. Once eligibility is verified, qualifying veterans, their spouses or veteran caregivers can schedule a vaccination at any of the upcoming Montana VA COVID-19 vaccination clinics.