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The long wait

Veterans in Montana wrestle with VA deficiencies

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Dustin Monroe’s ankle has given him problems ever since he got out of the U.S. Army in 2006. He busted it up on tour with the 25th Infantry Division in Iraq, when he was hit by an IED. The pins placed in his ankle after the injury broke about three years back, he says, massaging the top of a foot dotted with scars. He can still play basketball or walk around, but not without taking pills for the pain.

“This affects my everyday life—walking, even jobs,” Monroe says. “I’ve just sucked it up, but I shouldn’t have to suck it up when they put the damn pins in me to help me out.”

Monroe, 32, grew up in Browning and graduated from Great Falls High School before enlisting in 2000. He’s an enrolled member of the Assiniboine Tribe on Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and since his honorable discharge more than six years ago, he’s gone from getting a business degree at the University of Montana to working with a host of nonprofits aimed at improving life in Indian Country. His latest efforts as CEO and founder of Native Generational Change range from restoring reservation playgrounds to increasing voter participation in tribal communities.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • More than 70 veterans turned out for a listening session with Sen. Jon Tester last week on deficiencies at the Montana VA facility at Fort Harrison. Among them was Dustin Monroe, an Iraq veteran who has experienced several problems with the VA since 2006.

But the ankle problems persist. He’s tried to get help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs here in Montana. They don’t get back to him, he says, further fueling a frustration with the VA he’s felt ever since he got out of the service. His past struggles with the agency range from getting his son listed as a dependent on his veteran benefits to receiving adequate care in his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. The former took more than a year of persistent pressure to accomplish, he says; the latter prompted him to give up on the VA entirely and instead seek relief by getting back in touch with his traditional Native roots.

Monroe opted not to focus on his personal battles last week when he stood up in a room full of fellow veterans during a listening session with Sen. Jon Tester, recently named to a conference committee tasked with reconciling House and Senate versions of a bill to address troubling and widespread deficiencies in the VA. He says he didn’t want to distract from the broader discussion—one that has reached a fever pitch across the country ever since the revelations this spring that scores of veterans died while waiting on appointments with the VA in Phoenix, Ariz.

The nationwide scandal has already led to intense congressional hearings and an internal audit by the VA itself. The VA inspector general has launched investigations into 26 facilities over accusations that staff doctored waiting lists; just this week a whistle-blower alleged to CNN that the VA hospital in Phoenix had removed “deceased” notes from veterans’ files to cover up how many had died while awaiting care. VA Director Eric Shinseki promptly resigned amid the scandal on May 30, one day after an announcement that VA Montana Health Care System Director Christine Gregory would be stepping down in June to spend more time with her family.

In Montana, wait times for new patients at the VA’s Fort Harrison facility in Helena average 48 days, longer than in neighboring states according to the agency’s June access audit. The VA inspector general’s May review ranked Fort Harrison near the bottom—121 out of 128 facilities—for primary care wait times at VA facilities nationwide. During last week’s discussion, Tester said that once veterans got their foot in the door in the state, they were pleased with the quality of VA care they received. Still, he added, a 48-day wait is unacceptable.

“While that may be better than some areas of this country, it is far too long for anyone to wait, let alone a veteran,” Tester said. “We’re committed to fixing those access issues.”

Those who spoke up during the listening session were largely unanimous in their suggestion regarding how to fix the system in Montana. Many called on Tester to explore privatization of the VA and allow veterans to seek care from non-VA facilities locally. Tester said that consideration would require extreme caution, but Monroe feels privatization could potentially solve several problems he himself has run up against with the VA.

“We can’t have this same cookie-cutter approach as the rest of the nation does,” Monroe says. “The Montanas, the Wyomings, the South Dakotas—we need to have our own solution for these states, because we do have a very diverse population between the Native population and the non-Native population, and also the rural versus non-rural.”

Monroe, who also worked at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and saw “the worst of the worst of this war,” remembers when he moved home to Fort Belknap for a time several years ago. He was still battling with PTSD, but the Hi-Line lacked any direct access to VA care. Instead, he was encouraged to teleconference for counseling.

“Nobody wants to talk to a damn TV,” he says. “There really was no alternative that we had. There’s no help up on the Hi-Line in Montana.”

It’s a struggle in Missoula too. Appointments are frequently scheduled three or more months out, Monroe says, and it can be tough for veterans to get all the way to Fort Harrison. VA care for mental health here is good, he adds, but even that portion of the system is understaffed.

Shortly after talking to the Indy, Monroe called to say he’d aggravated his ankle injury at the gym. When the VA failed to answer his call, he decided to head to the emergency room. “Whatever,” he says. “I’ll just pay out of pocket if I have to.”

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