Great Falls Tribune: VA to open veterans center in Helena

HELENA — Veterans Affairs will establish a veterans center outstation in Helena by this fall to better treat veterans, service members and their families, officials said Tuesday.

The facility will be staffed by a readjustment counselor and outreach specialist.

The community-based counseling centers provide sociological and psychological services in a confidential setting outside VA Health Care facilities. Services include mental health screenings, suicide prevention, drug and alcohol assistance, family counseling, employment assistance, education training and other services to help veterans transition to civilian life, Sen. Jon Tester said.

Helena veterans now have to two hours round-trip to access the mental health care resources at the closest veterans center. In 2009, Tester, D-Mont., secured fundingfor centers in Great Falls and Kalispell.

“The Helena Vet Center will provide local veterans with additional access to mental health care services and help the service members who are living with the unseen wounds of war,” Tester said via email.

The VA said services will be available to veterans, active duty service members, members of the National Guard and Reserves. Services are also provided to family members and service members.

In 2009, Tester got funding for a VA Vet Centers in Kalispell and Great Falls.

Helena remains underserved in its scope of mental health resources for veterans and the Fort Harrison VA Medical Facility does not substitute for the unique services a Vet Center provides, said Diane Carlson Evans, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Helena who thanks Tester for his efforts.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., hailed the VA’s announcement.

“Our veterans deserve the best care possible, close to home and without delay. Rural veterans face a higher suicide rate — and it’s welcome news to see the VA prioritize our rural veterans,” Daines stated via email. “This new Helena Vet Center is an important step forward in halting the tragic issues they face and will provide our veterans with the care they need.”

Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., also praised the VA’s decision.

“I’m happy to see Helena-area veterans and active duty Guard and Reserve members will have greater access to readjustment counseling with a permanent Vet Center Outstation,” he said via email. “I still believe the VA has a lot of work to do to get on the right path, but I’m glad to see they are upping their efforts to expand care in Montana.”

In 2011, Tester highlighted the increased need for mental health care services for Montana veterans and began pushing the VA to establish a Vet Center in Helena.

He brought VA secretaries Eric Shinseki and Bob McDonald to Helena and hosted listening sessions so local veterans could express the need for a Vet Center in the state’s capital.

In December, Tester successfully secured an additional $15 million in the Fiscal Year 2016 Appropriations Bill for VA Vet Centers across the nation.

Tester is the top Democrat on the subcommittee that funds the VA. He is also sponsoring the CARE for Reservists Actwhich provides National Guard and Reservists veterans access to VA Vet Centers.