HELENA – Leaders with the Montana VA Health Care System say they can continue meeting the primary care needs of veterans around the state, despite some current vacancies in their care staff.

Leaders said the agency has received a number of inquiries about the vacancies. In a statement this week, they said any reports that primary care is widely unavailable at the Montana VA are false.

“There is a nationwide shortage of primary care providers, and being in a rural state like Montana, that can be more significant,” said Dr. Marilyn Lajoie, the system’s deputy chief of staff. “Primary care staffing is pretty fluid, but I’m confident that we have what we need to serve veterans.”

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In order to fully care for roughly 47,000 veterans in Montana, VA leaders say they need the equivalent of 37.1 full-time care providers. Those providers, who can be physicians, nurse practitioners or physician assistants, lead the system’s primary care teams across the state.

Currently, the VA has 33.45 full-time equivalent providers. That includes a number of employees covering gaps temporarily. Others provide “tele-health” services, using technology to work remotely with patients in another location. Lajoie said, in many of those cases, nurses or other members of the care teams will be at the locations to meet patients in person.

At the VA’s Fort Harrison medical center, leaders want to have six full-time equivalent care providers. They currently have three full-time providers, plus a temporary tele-health provider and two part-time workers.

Lajoie said several primary care providers have left the center in the last two months. She said one was moved into another position with the VA, while another had planned to retire for about a year.

“That could be perceived as, ‘Oh my goodness, there are two or three people leaving at the same time,’” she said.

Lajoie said the Montana VA already has replacements for those employees, and that they will start work soon. They are among 8.5 full-time equivalent employees who are scheduled to join the VA between Mar. 5 and the end of May.

5.5 current full-time equivalent providers have given notice that they will leave the VA or reduce their hours.

Leaders say they only have two current vacancies without a replacement ready – one at Fort Harrison and one in Billings. They say they are actively recruiting for those positions.

Lajoie said she believes the Montana VA’s staffing situation will continue to improve.

“I just want to reassure our veterans that we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we’re doing a good job, and that there isn’t a shortage, and there isn’t any reason to be fearful that their care won’t continue as it has been,” she said.

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