Groundbreaking on VA’s new Missoula clinic one step closer to “the care vets deserve”

Service veterans across western Montana will say goodbye to the cramped confines of the Department of Veterans Affairs current Missoula medical clinic next winter when a new integrated care center opens on West Broadway.

VA officials joined veterans, Native Americans and members of Montana’s congressional delegation on Friday to break ground on that new $31 million facility, which will double the size of the antiquated clinic off Palmer Street.

“Today marks our first next step forward for Montana veterans, both those with us today and future veterans,” said Dr. Judy Hayman, director of the VA Montana Healthcare System. “This new technologically sophisticated building will allow us to give state-of-the-art care for our veterans. We’ve designed it to be patient-centric. It will allow us to streamline care.”

While Friday’s ceremony included all the pomp and circumstance of most groundbreaking events, work on the project has already begun off West Broadway on Missoula’s growing west side.

The project has been years in the making, and while the clinic stood atop the list of community based VA clinics across a six state region, it took an equal number of years to bring the project to fruition.

Ralp Gigliotti, director of the regional Veterans Integrated Services Network, said the new Missoula clinic had to compete with many other VA needs for funding.

“One of the roles I have is to ensure VA facilities meet the demands that are needed,” said Gigliotti. “One of the fist things I was told by elected officials, Sen. (Jon) Tester directly and the veterans I met, was that Missoula needed a new clinic. Today is a wonderful day. I can’t think of a better outcome.”

Two years ago, many of the same officials gathered at the old clinic off Palmer Street to rename it in honor of David J. Thatcher, a Montana member of the Doolittle Raiders famed for their brazen raid over Tokyo in 1942.

Thatcher’s family members expressed gratitude for the recognition paid to their father, whose name will also adorn the new clinic when it opens in the winter of 2021.

“If Dave were here today, he would quietly defer recognition to others,” said Thatcher son-in-law Jeff Miller. “The thatcher family is grateful and honored, but it’s not for Dave. It’s for all the veterans. They did their job, just like Dave did his. We owe them the best care possible.”

The new clinic is designed to provide that care in what VA officials described as something of a one-stop shop. Designed around the principle of Patient Aligned Care, it will create a clinical environment allowing veterans to be seen by multiple care givers in a single room.

The current facility requires veterans receiving even basic care to move from room to room. In the new facility, that care will be provided in the privacy of a single location. By streamlining care, patients should get more face time with doctors and integrated care from professionals ranging from social workers to dietitians.

“The fact is, for far too long, Montana’s veterans here in western Montana had to deal with an undersized clinic,” said Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member of the Senate VA Committee. “And for far too long, the staff that had to work in that clinic weren’t in the kind of facility they can be proud of. This new facility is a whole different story.”

Getting the new facility dates back to at least 2014 when then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was told Missoula needed a new clinic. The next year, then VA Secretary Bob McDonald was told the same thing. He actually visited Missoula to see the need for himself.

Leaders of the VA underwent rapid changes over the years, and while the Missoula clinic was on the list of needs, it took what Sens. Tester and Steve Daines described as “legislating” to get it across the finish line.

Last September, the VA finally announced its plans for the new Missoula clinic.

“This was team ball to get this done,” said Daines. “It takes both sides of the aisle to get an outcome like this. In this day of divided politics, sometimes a divided nation, it’s nice to see the country come together in moments to see an outcome like this.”

Tester billed it as a good day.

“The actions of the Doolittle Raiders raised the moral of the country, and I think the building of this clinic does the same thing for our veterans in this region,” he said. “Being in a small, undersized clinic for as long as they were in Missoula gives a real appreciation for what’s about to happen here.”

The new clinic will serve roughly 50,000 veterans in western Montana and enable the VA to expand services, including primary care, mental health and specialty care.

“Montana has an incredible tradition of having a high volunteerism when it comes to our military service,” said Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who attended Friday’s ceremony. “We make a commitment to those people, and this is following through on that commitment, allowing them to have greater access to quality health care, which isn’t asking too much.”