Four months after the grand opening of the $6.3 million Majestic Lane Clinic, veterans are encountering roadblocks in getting appointments and staffing remains an issue.
While an audiologist and support staff have been hired and audiology equipment is on site, the equipment is inoperable because of “technical issues.” Consequently, veterans are unable to get appointments with the audiologist. The problem should be fixed within two weeks, said Randy A. Martin, Public Affairs Officer for the VA Montana Health Care System.
Additionally, there was a technical issue with an appointment check-in kiosk that has since been repaired.
Veterans have also reported challenges with the appointment system. Veterans have multiple options for scheduling appointments including scheduling by phone or in person for serious medical issues, said Johnny Ginnity, acting director for the Montana Health Care System.
The appointment kiosks are new and officials anticipated challenges, Ginnity said.
VA Montana has assured U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s member of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, that the audiology department will be running soon. Tester worked with local veterans and the VA for the past six years to help secure funding to expand the clinic.
“Montana’s veterans deserve timely access to health care,” Tester told The Billings Gazette. “I will continue to work to make sure the Billings VA Clinic has the tools it needs to live up to the promises we made our fighting men and women.”
Les Gapay, 70, said his initial experience with the Majestic Lane Clinic was a “fiasco.” Gapay, a Montana native who travelled from California to Montana to spend the summer, was trying to get his new hearing aids shipped from a medical facility in California to the Majestic Lane Clinic but was told the audiology department wasn’t running.
“I was surprised,” he said. “I couldn’t get past the clerical help.”
He spent two days working the telephone to get his California audiologist connected to the VA’s audiologist in Billings. Gapay has been assured his hearing aids will be shipped here, but he still does not have an appointment to get them adjusted.
He was told it might be next week.
The 70,000-square-foot clinic at 1766 Majestic Lane is designed to offer many of the services that veterans historically had to get at the VA Hospital in Fort Harrison. Services in Billings are scheduled to include audiology, mental health, outpatient surgery, dental, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and eye care.
It is expected to serve an estimated 12,000 veterans from Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.
But many staff positions remain vacant. The clinic is still trying to recruit RNs, a urologist, ophthalmologist, part-time psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioner and more.
“VA Montana, its employees and leadership, at every level are committed to Montana’s veterans,” Ginnity said. “Our hiring effort for the Billings Majestic Clinic began in August of 2013 and continues relentlessly.”
Ed Saunders, adjutant of Billings Chapter 10 of Disabled American Veterans, said he remains concerned about access and staffing. Saunders shared an email he received from a local veteran Wednesday who has lost confidence in the system.
"Buildings don't provide patient care; people provide patient care,” Saunders said. “VA’s Veterans Health Administration faces a significant crisis-of-confidence now. Once a veteran has lost confidence in the VA, how can VA ever get it back? Veterans don't want words, veterans want action — now.”
Saunders has long said that no one should expect the Billings clinic to be fully operational within weeks of opening. But as weeks turn into months, he is again wondering who is in charge.
He questions whether the Veterans Health Administration has grown so large and complex that no person, however well-intended and well-funded, can manage it. He questions whether the Billings VA medical clinic has grown so large that staff at Fort Harrison cannot manage the Billings clinic from 250 miles away.
“The irony and sadness in this comes from the medical and pharmaceutical technicians, nurses and clinicians, who work closely with veterans and veterans medical care every day,” Saunders said. “These dedicated medical staff at the patient level, soldier on in spite of the bureaucratic VA challenges the medical staff faces. They are caught up in a whirlwind of crisis they didn't create.”
The challenges with the new Billings facility coincide with a federal investigation into problems in the nationwide health care system. Montana’s sites at Fort Harrison — and Billings — are among about a third of the audited sites that are flagged for further investigation.