HELENA – U.S. Veterans Administration Secretary David Shulkin said here Monday that improving the VA’s health-care system for veterans is one area where Congress and the Trump administration are scoring some successes.
But, in a visit to Montana, he also said solving the “pretty significant problems” of the system will take some time.
“A lot of the problems that resulted in the crises that we’ve seen in the VA did not happen overnight, they happened over decades,” he told reporters at a news conference in Helena. “It is going to take us a period of several years to get this system to be one that we’re all satisfied with.”
Shulkin came to Montana at the invitation of the state’s two U.S. senators, who said they’ve been working together to tackle problems within the VA health system, such as delayed care and what they called a “lack of accountability.”
Shulkin visited with health-care personnel at Fort Harrison, site of the only VA hospital in the state, and later listened to veterans’ questions and concerns at a public forum at the Helena College-University of Montana campus.
Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said Congress and President Trump have enacted five bills this year dealing with VA health care, including ones to protect whistle-blowers within the VA, enable the VA to more easily get rid of bad employees, and streamline to appeals process for veterans seeking disability status.
“We are here today to listen to you, to see how we can improve your health-care deliver,” he told veterans at the forum.
Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, attended the forum, along with Shulkin.
Veterans at the forum didn’t hold back, saying the system still has many problems, such as high turnover of personnel and delays in care. They zeroed in on the “choice” program, which is supposed to pay for care delivered by private physicians, to avoid waits for VA-employed health-care professionals.
“I kept calling choice and they said, we never received your paperwork,” said Everett King, a Vietnam veteran from Valier. “You finally get it through, but instead of waiting one month, it ends up being three months. …
“You just flat get ignored here in Helena. Just flat get ignored. And I don’t think that’s right.”
Shulkin said later that funding for the choice program has been extended, while Congress and the administration work on a bill to make changes so the program “begins to work the way it was intended to work.” He said he hopes the bill can get passed this year.
Shulkin also said the VA is redoing or re-examining rules on how money is allocated to states, with an eye toward making it easier for rural states like Montana to get funding for projects like a proposed veterans’ nursing home in Butte.
“If we don’t change the rules to make sure that being in a rural area increases the likelihood of funding, we’re not going to get to build a health residence in Montana,” he said. “We want to make sure these dollars are going to rural veterans, and we’ll be working on that in the next couple of months.”