By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The VA Montana Health Care System is looking at both short- and long-term solutions to address a number of challenges within the state, including a lack of providers, problems with telehealth screenings and the absence of physician training, its new director said Wednesday.

Kathy Berger, director of VA Montana, answered questions from area veterans and Sen. Jon Tester during a town hall meeting at the Partnership Health Center in Missoula to gather feedback on problems within the VA (see related story).

Berger, who was named director of VA Montana last October, said the state is working to find solutions, even as the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, of which Tester is a ranking member, works to rewrite the CHOICE Act.

“In the short-term, we're hiring providers to replace those that we lost in Montana,” Berger said. “We've got five or six coming in the next couple of months for various clinics. We've got more in the pipeline, and we're trying to get an emergency contract to fill the gaps in between until we get permanent replacements.”

During the hourlong session, both veterans and health care professionals said a shortage of providers, including specialists and psychiatrists, remain a problem in Montana, causing a backlog in consultations and delays in appointments.

Berger said she sympathizes with veterans frustrated with the process, though she traces the issue to a lack of providers working in Montana, both within the VA system and in private practice.

“We have a shortage of providers and specialists, and Montana is a hard state to attract specialists to,” Berger said. “We don't have a medical school and the VA doesn't do research, and those are desirable qualities for a specialist who wants to come to work in a professional environment.”

The University of Montana three years ago launched a medical residency program in partnership with the University of Washington to bolster the number of family doctors working in the state. That program graduated its first class last year, with six of the 10 doctors staying to practice in the state.

The Montana VA is working on a similar model, and it plans to launch its own residency program to increase the number of state providers. Many of those providers, in theory, will remain within the Montana VA.

“Oftentimes, when you have a training program, many of those providers would like to stay in the system where they have trained,” Berger said. “It'll take two or three years to get to that point and get the program up and running, but we will be doing primary care residency training, which we think will attract primary care providers who stay here.”

Berger said VA Montana is also working to tap into resources in Denver and elsewhere to improve telehealth opportunities at the Community Based Outpatient Clinics scattered across the state.

The shortage of providers has Tester concerned.

“That's persistent throughout the VA – its' persistent throughout the civilian medical professions to,” Tester said. “We just don't have enough providers. The problem is, when it comes to veterans, it can't be an excuse.”

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