VA Health Care Center

VA Health Care Center Billings Majestic Lane Clinic in Billings Montana on Dec. 23, 2015.

BOB ZELLAR, Gazette Staff

Ed Lesofski and Jason Zentgraf are sure they have a good idea. 

A failure at the ballot box last year convinced them to approach the Legislature this year and they scored their first win on Wednesday when their bill made it out of the House.

"The problem we're trying to solve is the five-hour drives and the six-month wait times veterans face to get into the VA," Zentgraf said. 

The idea is to create an army of localized emergency care providers that can visit veterans in their homes to provide wellness checks and be the first point of contact for emotional support. It would eliminate the need for veterans to go through the hassle of setting up appointments and driving long distances to meet with a medical professional. 

"There's just way too many veterans for our VA," Zentgraf said. "There's just not enough (staff)."

He compares it to an hour glass. Veterans get bottle-necked trying to get into the VA, they get discouraged and then stop seeking care. 

"The veterans are falling outside that hourglass," Zentgraf said. 

As the bill is written, the state's medical board would decide who qualifies as an emergency care provider and would provide the needed certification. The work of the emergency care providers would be overseen by a doctor. 

The bill is designed for veterans in rural areas who are far from medical centers and emergency care. What most rural areas have, Lesofski said, are emergency medical technicians attached to volunteer fire departments or sheriff offices.

Ideally, it would be the EMTs who qualify, at least initially, as the emergency care providers on whom veterans could call, Lesofski said. 

It's a personal issue for the two men. Zentgraf and Lesofski run the Missoula-based Rural Institute for Veterans Education and Research (RIVER), a nonprofit group that helps veterans through education and emotional support. They also have plans to add a clinic that will help veterans with pain management. 

Lesofski tried last year through a ballot initiative to create a law that would allow EMTs to get certification to work as emergency care providers in rural areas. It failed with voters and so Lesofski went back to the drawing board. 

He realized the state medical board needed to be involved in the process from the start and so proposed that change when it came time for his representative to draft a bill for the state Legislature. 

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Helena, sponsored the bill. 

"It's a great bill," Zentgraf said. "It's not a partisan bill; it's a veterans bill."

Since passing the House on Wednesday, the bill will now move on to the Senate. If it passes there, it'll go to Gov. Steve Bullock's desk to be signed into law. Lesofski and Zentograph are optimistic it'll make it. 

"It'll show that the governor supports veterans," Zentgraf said. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.