HELENA — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Monday during a visit to Montana that his agency will propose changes to make it easier for rural areas to receive funding to build nursing homes for veterans.

Rural areas are often bypassed under the agency's existing guidelines for awarding grants for veterans' homes, Shulkin told reporters after touring VA facilities and meeting with veterans in Helena.

"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 be able to help residents of Montana," Shulkin said.

Montana veterans and lawmakers have been seeking funding for about a decade to build a veterans' home for the southwestern part of the state. Veterans complain that VA nursing facilities in some parts of Montana are located hundreds of miles away from their homes and families.

This year, the proposed veterans' home for Butte ranked 57th on the agency's priority list, and the VA only funded the top 13, Shulkin said.

The VA now sets its priority list by looking at veteran demographics and the need for beds, making it difficult for some rural areas to compete, VA officials said.

The agency plans to propose regulation changes by year's end to ensure some of the money goes specifically to rural areas. Whatever proposal emerges must go through a public comment period, so it's unclear when any changes may take effect.

Shulkin was in Montana at the invitation of U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

The three appeared at a question-and-answer session attended by dozens of veterans, who complained about long wait times to see a doctor, lost or delayed paperwork that stalled treatment, poor customer service and retaliation against whistleblowers.

“You just flat get ignored sometimes here in Helena,” Everett King of Valier told the panel, regarding the Veterans Choice Program.

There was also some praise amid the complaints. Anna Chacko, who was in the Army for 25 years, said she now receives immediate callbacks from the medical center at Fort Harrison.

While King had issues with the Choice program, he credited the VA for saving his life as he battled post-traumatic stress disorder.

Shulkin said that fixing the VA is among the few issues in Washington that hasn't stalled.

"When it comes to veterans issues, there is true bipartisan support," he said.

Shulkin, Daines and Tester praised the passage of five pieces of legislation since President Donald Trump took office, including a VA accountability bill to make firing poor employees easier and another bill streamlining the appeals process.

Daines said he asked Shulkin what help from Congress looked like, and accountability was a major need.

“There hasn’t been a lot of legislation passed in Washington D.C., but when you look at the record on veteran legislation it’s quite positive,” Daines said.

Shulkin’s visit to Montana was important in terms of demonstrating the differences in needs for urban versus rural veterans, Tester said.

“The bottom line is this, in Washington D.C. in a bipartisan way we’ve worked with the VA, we’ve worked with the veteran service organizations and we’ve worked with one another, to try to move the ball forward for not only urban veterans, but in Steve's and my case, rural veterans making sure they have access to health care that they’ve earned,” Tester told reporters.

Independent Record reporter Tom Kuglin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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