HELENA — Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie joined Senator Steve Daines on Monday for a tour of the Montana VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison.
At a press event, Wilkie praised the work of the Montana VA Health Care System (MTVAHCS) staff.
“ I have a simple mission here, and that is to thank the VA employees for everything they have done. Not only for the veterans of Montana but for the people of the United States,” said Wilkie.
MTVAHCS staff have been deployed to 46 states across the nation to assist with COVID-19 response, including some of the hardest hit areas.
Wilkie also commended MTVAHCS staff for their commitment to their patients.
“The approval ratings here at Fort Harrison for healthcare are 93%. There is nothing like it in the entire United States when it comes to patient satisfaction,” said Wilkie.
“Forbes magazine recently released its study of the best employers in the country. In Montana, the best employer was here at the VA," he added.
Montana is a big, rural state which presents significant challenges for some veterans to receive care.
To help more veterans and their families receive care, MTVAHCS has rapidly expanded their telehealth services in recent years.
“We’ve seen the creation of a telehealth clinic in Eureka, MT and expect to continue that with our partners at Walmart across the state so that we can alleviate the burden of traveling great distances,” said Wilkie.
Wilkie also addressed the struggles of mental health and suicide the veteran population faces every day.
The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Memorial Health and Suicide Prevention Bill is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump sometime this week.
The bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jon Tester (D-MT) is designed to improve outreach to veterans and their mental health care options through bolstering VA behavioral health staff and increasing telehealth services.
Sen. Tester worked with the Hannon family to craft the bill and introduced it with last year with the family present.
“Around 20 veterans a day take their lives. Of those 20, about 16 of them we don’t see in VA,” said Wilkie. “We need to be able to find them, and we’ll be here in Montana testing out those programs to make surrey we do everything in our power to end this scourge of veteran suicide.”
Sen. Daines echoed the sentiments of Wilkie and praised the MTVAHCS for embracing telehealth and increasing their behavioral health staff.
“As we know here in Montana we’ve had a shortage of doctors, and in particular mental health professionals in the VA… I want to thank [MTVAHCS Executive Director Dr. Judy Hayman] for her leadership in getting these positions filed to serve our veterans,” Sen. Daines said.
“If you think about the challenges in mental health and suicide, fist we need to have the providers. Second, the technology. That’s why it’s so important we continue to move forward here on telehealth. It’s going to be a critical part of how we address this issue of veteran suicides," he continued.
In addition to telemedicine, the VA will begin rolling out its electronic health records system beginning next week after an eight-month delay.
There is no definitive date right now for when that service will be available in Montana, but Wilkie says the plan is to begin in the Pacific Northwest and work their way across the country.
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.