HELENA – Robert Wilkie, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said during a visit Monday to facilities in Montana that the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center has a 93% approval rating from clients.
“There is nothing like it in the entire United States when it comes to patient satisfaction,” he said at a news conference outside the facility, adding later that Forbes magazine recently listed the VA as the best employer in Montana.
Wilkie was in Montana at the invitation of Republican Sen. Steve Daines, but he also took time to thank Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte for their support.
He said he had a “simple mission” and that was to thank VA workers for their work that they have done to help veterans.
“The veteran population is exploding and in the coming years you will see a larger footprint from Veterans Affairs across Montana to meet the growing needs of veterans in this state,” he said. “Montanans are interesting. When they go off to serve, unlike a lot of places, they don’t tend to stay where their last duty post was. They come back home, which is a testament to hospitality and a testament to the patriotism of the people of this state.”
Wilke said Montana has had a rapid expansion of telehealth services, so that “we can reach into the farthest places in this state.”
He said a telehealth clinic has been created at Eureka and there are plans to set it up at Walmarts to alleviate burdens of traveling great distances.
Wilkie said the most clinical priority is suicide prevention.
But he said a national task force has been devoted into looking at the causes of veterans suicide. He added that President Donald Trump was expected to sign suicide legislation this week.
Daines said it was good to see that Fort Harrison had received a high rating. He also said he was glad to see 14 new doctors and two new psychiatrists at Fort Harrison.
He also said Wilkie spokes to canteen workers, saying they are unsung heroes of service to veterans. He and Wilkie were to make another stop at a VA facility in Missoula.
Daines announced Sept. 16 that Wilkie would visit the state, adding it was his “honor to serve Montana veterans in the United States Senate,” and he looked forward to bringing Wilkie to the state.
Daines is running for reelection and will face Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Tester put out a statement last week critical of Wilkie’s visit, adding he was “frustrated he would make his first official visit to Montana in the midst of a contested political campaign less than three weeks before Montanans start voting.”
He also said he was troubled there was not a public event in which veterans could offer comment.
Montana VA officials announced in January that construction is underway on an 18,000-square-foot addition to the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison and expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Dr. Judy Hayman, director of the VA Montana Healthcare System, said Montana VA provides care for more than 47,000 veterans. The agency has a staff of around 1,200, working from 17 care sites.
The new 16,000-square-foot Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Great Falls opened recently at 1400 29th St. S.