With the exception of Alaska, no other state boasts more veterans per capita than Montana. But as I have personally experienced and many veterans in the state will tell you, when it comes to providing Montanans with quality health care, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has room for improvement. While many of the system's doctors do their jobs well, bureaucratic hurdles remain.
More than 10 percent of appointments in the Montana VA Health Care System take more than 30 days to schedule. The Billings, Lewistown and Plentywood clinics each have average wait times hovering near 30 days, while the average wait time at the Great Falls VA Clinic is closer to 40 days.
Worse yet, the rate of serious post-surgery blood clots in Montana exceeds the national average, as does the rate of wounds splitting open following abdomen and pelvis surgeries. This is completely unacceptable anywhere, but particularly in a state so many veterans call home.
The nation first learned of grave problems at the VA after the Phoenix VA scandal in 2014. That same year, an inspector general report revealed gross malfeasance and negligence throughout the Veterans Health Administration, and Congress created the Veterans Choice Program.
Veterans Choice was intended to serve only as a stop-gap measure that allowed veterans to receive timely care at doctors and facilities outside the VA system before substantive reforms could be made. However, the well-intentioned program fell short of its stated goals. The “Choice [Program] did not reduce wait times to receive necessary medical care for many veterans,” the VA assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations wrote in a March report.
That’s because the VA bureaucracy continues to act as a gatekeeper between veterans and their health care, using inefficient and confusing methods to refer veterans to private care providers.
Take, for example, the “40-mile 30-day rule” that requires veterans to live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility or to confront a wait time exceeding 30 days before they can use the Veterans Choice program. If a veteran lives within 40 miles of any VA clinic, even if that facility does not offer the treatment the veteran needs, he or she would not be able to use the program.
Even worse, the VA inspector general’s March report revealed VA officials were still manipulating wait-time data — preventing as many as 13,800 eligible veterans from accessing the Choice Program. Montana veterans at recent town halls have raised these concerns directly to our congressional delegation and VA Secretary David Shulkin.
Clearly, the program must be reformed if it is to function as intended. Few people are better positioned to make sure this happens than Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
From his powerful perch, Tester can insist that veterans — not the vast VA bureaucracy — are the central focus as Congress goes about reforming the program.
In a national poll taken earlier this year, 98 percent of veterans and 95 percent of registered voters overwhelmingly favored allowing veterans to use their benefits to receive care outside of the VA.
For the sake of Montana veterans and all veterans around the country, Tester must advance bold reforms to expand health care choice and improve the way the VA delivers health care. That way, he can ensure that the VA is there for those who need it and, if the system can’t provide adequate care, veterans can easily get treatment elsewhere.
The tradition of military service runs deep in Montana. Tester can honor this legacy by making sure all veterans receive the care they have earned.
Sam Redfern is the western Montana field director for Concerned Veterans for America. Redfern is the founder of the nonprofit United States of Hope, lives in Missoula, is an alumnus of the University of Montana and is an Iraq War combat veteran.