Thirty minutes into a Thursday listening session between military veterans and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, one thing was clear: Men who put their country first don't appreciate being treated last.
Veteran Jim McDermand wrote the federal government more than six years ago about his exposure during the Vietnam War to Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used to defoliate the jungle. Veterans exposed to Agent Orange have been plagued with health problems including prostate cancer, with which McDermand was diagnosed in 2002.
Yet, the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs turned the Navy shipfitter down for full coverage. The reason: It no longer considered him a war veteran because he served on an aircraft carrier off Vietnam's coast.
"The VA changed the terminology of what constitutes a Vietnam vet. So their new interpretation was only those that set foot in Vietnam," McDermand said. "I have a medal and received combat pay and everything else when I was there."
The government is reconsidering his application. McDermand's cancer hasn't waited a day. It has metastasized.
Roughly a dozen veterans who spoke with Montana's Democratic junior senator told tales of undercoverage because of government rules that exempt them from full care.
Tester met with roughly 40 people at the Montana State University Billings' College of Technology. The session was the pre-event to Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony for a new veterans clinic, slated to open next October.
Veterans like Dan Miller told of applying for VA care and being unexpectedly turned down because of Proposition 8, a 2003 cost-cutting rule change that eliminated veterans who, among other things, make too much money. Income thresholds start at $27,790 for a veteran with no dependents to $38,948 for a veteran with four dependents.
With Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger in tow, Tester listened as his staff took down names and contact information. He promised to contact Veterans Affairs about every case to see if he could get things moving.
"There's no need to penalize people who served their country simply because they got a good job," Tester said.
Most veterans expressed frustration with government red tape, but steered clear of criticizing VA medical staff. Dave Bovee, an Air Force veteran with multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis, was the exception. He said VA care wasn't up to modern medical standards and said the caregivers he dealt with were idiots. His comments prompted other vets to stand and praise the VA clinicians with whom they dealt.
However, Bovee also suggested that veterans' visits to private doctors and hospitals should be covered by their service benefits. The argument is one frequently made by veterans, particularly those in rural states who have to travel long distances for VA services.
Nationwide, about 38 percent of veterans live in rural areas. Rural veterans often face grueling cross-state drives for treatment they could get locally, but without VA coverage.
The VA is rolling out 24 new clinics nationwide, including ones in Havre, Cut Bank and Lewistown, to make care more accessible. The administration is also hiring 3,100 more people to process veteran care claims, which are backlogged by more than six months.
Construction on a new Veterans Administration outreach clinic on Broso Park Drive in Billings is scheduled to begin later this month. After the listening session, Tester said it is crucial that construction on the clinic begin this year because projects delayed until 2009 would be further held up by the transition from President George W. Bush to incoming President Barack Obama.
Tester urged Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake earlier this year to break ground on the $8 million, 25,000-square-foot clinic this year. The two men toured Montana in February to hear from veterans about health care challenges in rural states.
The new clinic will be more than twice the size of the current VA clinic on King Avenue West, which after eight years cannot physically handle the 7,000 patients it treats annually. The new building will come with a larger medical staff.
At least initially, pharmacy and mental health services will not make the move to the new building, said Teresa Bell, spokeswoman for the VA health care system in Montana.
Matt Brosovich of Basin Development Properties, which used to own the six acres sold for the VA Clinic, said he has finalized a second contract, apparently for another federal project. The land to be sold is 1½ acres and sits adjacent to the clinic site.
"There are rumors there is another 25,000-square-foot facility, supposedly a psychiatric center, that will be built by 2010," Brosovich said.