FORT HARRISON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, along with Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines and Congressman Matt Rosendale hosted a roundtable discussion with nearly a dozen local veterans at Fort Harrison to hear veterans' feedback about the VA Health Care System and other related topics.
One of the first topics was mental health care for vets, specifically treatment-resistant depression.
“Thirty percent of people with depression won't respond to medication and they won't respond to therapists,” says Matt Kuntz, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Montana. “We need other kinds of treatment. When I was on a VA Commission and got them to do a data analysis of that. It was only 2,000 veterans in the VA system that received appropriate care for that, out of approximately 300,000 veterans that should have been qualified."
The VA Secretary responded by saying that 95% of rural communities in the country do not have access to mental health care and that this subject was one of his biggest takeaways in his trip to Montana.
“I am gravely concerned about the lack of access to mental health care. We have a lot of work to do there,” says Secretary McDonough. “There's good news there, greater access over telehealth platforms, but we have so much more to do. Our vets, Montanans, congress, our [Veteran Service Organizations], our President are right to expect that we do more and do it better."
The discussion wasn’t all about concerns. Ideas also surfaced that caught the eyes of the Secretary and others, including one idea to use the VA to help connect vets with legal services across the state.
"We provide certain types of services to service members. You have to be eligible, meet eligibility requirements. We got a lot of phone calls here saying 'Can I get some help because I'm a veteran?” says Major Mike Talia, a Legal Services Provider at Fort Harrison. “We've got one guy who works at a big law firm in Billings that does it for the state. He takes all the emails and all the phone calls and he sends an email out to everybody who's willing to volunteer. He does the placements.”
Talia proposed that legal services within the VA have added duties, or add a position, within the VA that places veterans in need of legal services with lawyers across the state. He proposed that this would also create data of what veterans go through when it comes to legal matters.
In addition to the discussion, the VA Secretary commented on the electronic health records system that has been on delay for many months at the Fort Harrison VA.
He says they have rolled out electronic health records in a pilot program in Spokane. In Washington, for the last several months, McDonough says the electronic health records have decreased productivity and has been less efficient than what they were proposing with this service.
Given that, the VA Secretary says they will re-look at the program before piloting the service elsewhere and in Montana. He did not comment on a timeline.
The Fort Harrison discussion was Secretary McDonough’s final stop on his Montana trip.
The Veterans Crisis Line offers support to veterans and their loved ones. They have veteran-specific suicide prevention information such as how to find nearby support, recognize warning signs, and information to connect with support via call (1-800-273-8255), chat, or text.
More information about resources available for suicide prevention and survivor of suicide loss can be found here.