After years of planning and congressional legwork, dignitaries gathered on Friday to celebrate the opening of Missoula’s new veterans clinic – an $8 million project that greatly expands healthcare to western Montana’s population of service members.
The 60,000 square-foot facility represents a 300% increase over the dated facility across the city and will continue to bear the name of Missoula veteran David J. Thatcher, who participated in the fabled Doolittle Raid over Japan in World War II.
“Folks who sign up get sent to places that are far different than Missoula,” said Sen. Jon Tester. “Sometimes those experiences cause changes in ways we can see, and sometimes in ways we can’t see. But when they get back home, it’s our obligation as Americans to do our level best to take care of those issues.”
Tester, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, played a fundamental role in delivering the new outpatient clinic.
Back in 2014, he brought former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to Missoula to discuss the need for more space at the old facility, resulting in its expansion. The following year, former VA Secretary Robert McDonald also came to Missoula, where plans for a new clinic began.
“This is one of the fastest growing areas for service we have in the state of Montana,” Tester said. “We needed a building that meets those needs. That’s when it all got going.”
To move things forward, Tester and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, joined other senators to pass legislation authorizing new VA clinics across the country. The Missoula clinic was one of them, but the facility represents more than a building.
“It’s the people who work here who truly bring this building to life,” Tester told the VA employees in attendance. “I know you’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it because you love to help veterans.”
When the clinic opens next month, those staff members will assemble in what Dr. Judy Hayman, the executive director of VA Montana, described as a patient aligned care team. The teams include the primary provider, a nurse and a medical support assistant.
The clinic will open with five such teams, and a sixth team is planned.
“This new state-of-the-art clinic will give our Montana veterans the care they truly deserve and offers the Montana VA what we really want – more opportunities to fulfill our solemn commitment and promise to care for those injured in our nation’s defense, and the families of those who lost their lives in service,” Hayman said.
The clinic’s opening comes as the VA celebrates its 100th year, though it’s only had a presence in Missoula for 30 years. The first Missoula clinic opened in 1997 and was little more than 800 square feet.
The new clinic spans 60,000 square feet and is far superior to the clinic it replaces. The additional space and growth in the VA healthcare system will bring new services to Missoula, including radiology, retinology, lab work, endocrinology, prosthetics, sleep support and care for homeless veterans.
The clinic also provides dedicated meeting space for peer support groups on PTSD and healthy living. Specialty providers will travel from Ft. Harrison in Helena to the new clinic on occasion.
“We’re working to expand our non-invasive cardiology services, and we also have opportunities to advance the quality of care across the board,” said Hayman. “In this clinic, we have four dedicated women’s health exam rooms, and all primary care providers have received training to be designated as women’s health providers.”
Tester also touched on the issue of women’s health, saying the veteran population has changed in recent decades. Women now serve in military roles once reserved for men, and the female veteran population now represents the fastest growing group in the armed services.
“That’s what’s happening, and that’s a very good sign,” Tester said. “Everyone deserves that kind of healthcare when they come back home.”