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Montana VA director provides updates during address in Helena

HELENA – As the Montana VA grows, they’re focusing on incorporating different kinds of care, such as telemedicine.

That’s according to director Kathy Berger, who addressed veterans, their family members and other community members in a State of the VA presentation at Helena College Tuesday night.

During her 40 minute presentation, Berger tackled multiple topics, including current access and wait times, budgets, and the VA’s construction of new, bigger buildings.

They are on track to soon open 42 new housing units for homeless veterans at Fort Harrison which should be available later this year.

Construction on 18,000 additional feet of space for primary care will also begin this spring, and a new dedicated building for outpatient mental health is expected in 2020.

Meanwhile, in Great Falls and Missoula, the Community-Base Outpatient Clinics, or CBOCs, will roughly double their space over the next two years.

Following her presentation, Berger told MTN the VA’s biggest challenge right now is recruiting medical staff to a rural area, where there is often a shortage of primary care physicians.

But she’s encouraged by the work they’re doing to prevent veteran suicide, a topic discussed often in Montana.

According to data from the Montana VA, there were 55 veteran deaths by suicide in 2018 marking a drop from 68 in 2017.

There were 482 Veterans Crisis Line referrals to the Montana Suicide Prevention Office in 2018. That’s up from 245 in 2014.

Also in 2018, there were 205 outreaches from the Montana Suicide Prevention Office to veterans, up from 105 in 2017.

“Our office has spent the last year three years working diligently with our communities to help them build of areas of care and support to help them reduce suicide among their communities,” said Juliana Hallows, the Montana VA’s suicide prevention coordinator.

That includes starting Mayor’s Challenges for Suicide Prevention in both Helena and Billings.

They’re also expanding Montana 211 into eastern Montana. Previously, the phone number to connect people in need with resources was only available from western Montana to Bozeman.

Hallows said they were able to secure funding to provide a more robust directory that veterans can access when they dial 211.

They’re still working on action items to fully establish 211,  but Hallows said it should all be finished by the end of this summer.

“What we know is when communities have resources when they feel connected, that we can help prevent suicide,” she said.

Berger also touched on the ways they’re expanding care for women veterans, who they project to make up 10 percent of enrolled members by 2026.

“Like the coordination of care for our pregnant women veterans, you know, they’re already busy anyways, we try to maximize technology and telehealth to make it more convenient for them,” said Berger. 

Seven pregnant women currently use their video on demand conferencing for health care, according to Women Veteran Program Manager Susan Calentine.

“It’s much more personal than it’s ever been before,” she said. “Usually we just call them, but now there’s that personal touch to it.”

If you are a veteran who needs help or know someone who does, call the Veterans Crisis Line. That number is 1-800-273-8255. Press 1.

Story by Evelyn Schultz, MTN News

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