This Thanksgiving, we gather to reflect and give thanks. For almost two years, our teams and veterans have faced COVID-19 daily. In an environment of long days, sleepless nights and the loss of over 2,500 Montanans, community, innovation, and our mission to provide the best health care regardless of any situation have been strengthened. As our teams pause to join with their families and give thanks, Montana VA looks towards Thanksgiving with hearts full of gratitude.
First, we give thanks to each veteran. We are honored and privileged to serve those who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all others who served. We are inspired by your example. In you, we see a resilient group who stood together to face the greatest threats. Despite the tragic loss of life, we see men and women who did not succumb to fear and desperation. You fought on – the best way you could – with hope. Despite the death, fear and sorrow, veterans have shown us how to fight back with hope, together.
Even as we face the pandemic – the greatest health care threat we have seen – we take inspiration from our veterans who have shown us that, together, we can overcome any challenge. Together, we can fight any foe or threat and ensure a better future. Together, we can serve each other and accomplish anything.
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This Thanksgiving, we also give thanks for the many Montanans who support Montana’s veterans and health care workers.
In Glasgow, Kalispell, Bozeman, Havre, Great Falls, Butte, Lewistown, and in communities across Montana, county health partners, business owners, churches, VFWs and American Legions, and many others opened up their doors so we could safely host vaccine clinics. Elected officials united to support Montana’s veterans. In May, our congressional delegation joined together to thank each veteran who decided to protect themselves and their families by receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Vital information has been home-delivered to veterans through radio, TV, newspapers and online through the strength of the free press and local journalists.
In spite of the year’s difficulties, we are thankful for the opportunities to strengthen veterans' access to quality health care. New, state-of-the-art clinics have opened or are opening in Havre, Fort Harrison, Miles City, Missoula, Bozeman and Butte.
This past year, Montana VA innovated to optimize veterans’ health care through new partnerships with community hospitals. In private hospitals such as Billings Clinic, St. Vincent’s, Community Medical Center, Benefis in Great Falls, Kalispell Regional, and St. Patrick’s, VA nurses are now stationed to help veterans access benefits and avoid delays in care between community health care and their VA teams.
Veterans adopted new ways to stay connected to their VA health care. Since late 2019, telehealth appointments increased 47%. Veterans used telehealth to safely keep their appointments, regardless of a local site’s bed capacity due to COVID, long distances or winter roads. This option helped support access to care alongside in-person appointments.
Montana VA teams adopted new ICU technology. Historically, when veterans needed specialty services, they may have been transferred to VAs in Salt Lake City or Denver. With TeleCritical Care technology, veterans can be seen remotely by VA specialists across the nation. This means that veterans may receive specialty care without leaving Montana.
Finally, our mission is possible because of our amazing Montana VA employees, one-third of whom are veterans. To each scheduler who worked late to connect veterans to COVID-19 vaccine appointments, to each housekeeper who kept every room safe and clean, to each clinical staff who carried the health and safety of your patients, teams and families every day, and to each of the 1,400 Montana VA employees, thank you. Thank you for your dedication, resilience and commitment. You have continued despite the unknowns and losses. You have walked through unimaginable challenges, stepped out of your comfort zones, and continued to serve our veterans and colleagues.
To Montana’s veterans, our community partners, and our Montana VA teams, thank you for showing that, together, we can overcome any challenge. Together, we can face any threat by uniting for a better future. Together, in service, we can accomplish phenomenal feats and even create healing.
Dr. Judy Hayman is executive director of the Montana VA.