BILLINGS — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough hosted a discussion with about 20 veterans on the MSU Billings campus on Monday to hear the vets' feedback about the VA health care system and struggles faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The rural parts of this country give a lot of its sons and daughters to our fighting mission. My first trip as secretary here to Montana is simply to underscore that fact. That our delivery of services and care in our rural communities is a fundamental priority for our department," McDonough said in his opening remarks to the group.
Members of the media were allowed to sit in for opening statements from Tester and McDonough but were asked to wait outside the MSUB Glacier Room while the discussion took place to allow the vets to speak freely, according to Tester spokesman Andy Bixler.
The vets in attendance were staff or students of MSUB and a handful of vets from eastern Montana. Local and regional VA leaders were also present to answer questions and note suggestions brought forward by veterans.
Tester, chairman of the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee, told reporters a common topic of discussion was widening access to mental health care for veterans in the state.
“There’s a lot of opportunities out there for thinking outside of the box for mental health. I think that was solid among everybody. I think we also heard how good the VA is doing in certain areas. I think that’s good. We heard that the VA is the preferred health care among many of the folks here and we also heard that there’s some challenges out there. Things aren’t perfect every day and we have some things we can improve. I thought it was a very fruitful event," Tester said in a short interview with reporters after the round table.
McDonough agreed with Tester about mental healthcare access and added that there are some ideas being implemented in VA facilities across the Montana region that could help other parts of the VA across the country.
“We did hear some innovative new ways to think about mental health as (Tester) has just said. This is actually coming from actual programming and ideas being implemented in local communities. That’s very attractive. I also heard some enthusiasm for the care that certain vets are getting within the system, notwithstanding complications from the pandemic. I think (Tester) was right that there was also some frustrations shared. It’s really important for me to hear that. I consider these sessions an opportunity for us to get actionable intelligence to now take that intelligence and go try to address the problems that have been raised," McDonough said.
Across the country, there are about 19 million veterans, McDonough said. There are about 6.4 million veterans that solely rely on the VA for health care, and about 8.5 million vets are enrolled in the VA program and receive a portion of their health care from the VA, McDonough said.
A common struggle for the VA across the board is attracting and retaining medical staff. The private sector of health care often has the same problem, especially in a rural state like Montana.
"I think what can always be improved is we need more folks. We need more docs. We need more nurses. We need more mental health professionals. Montana has done a pretty good job, but we still aren’t where we need to be. So we’ll be looking forward to making sure that we’re giving them the resources they need to hire the people they need to take care of the veterans all across this state," Tester said.
McDonough said vets at the roundtable called out the high turnover of staff as a problem for the VA.
“We have to make the VA a place where people want to work. That’s what I heard from our local leadership today. I think that first and foremost, our challenge as leaders is, are we making this a place where our leaders want to work," McDonough said.
Just as anyone else, veterans have seen negative impacts from COVID-19. Tester said the VA will likely be challenged in the coming months with a massive wave of appointments that veterans postponed or rescheduled due to the pandemic.
“I think there’s a lot of healthcare out there where people haven’t gotten healthcare in the last year. They will be stepping up and wanting healthcare, so there will be a lot of pressure on the VA from that angle," Tester said.
The American Rescue Plan, a federal COVID-19 relief bill passed in March 2021, carved out $17 billion in aid for the VA. The money is allocated across many many VA services, including $14.5 billion for health care and ensuring access to care for vets.
“We have to make sure that we’re staying in touch with those vets and getting them the care that they seek now," McDonough said.
Later this week, Tester and McDonough will host more listening sessions with veterans in Bozeman, Butte and Helena.