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For the second time in less than two years a search is underway for someone to lead the VA Montana Health Care system.

U.S. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is set to meet with Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson on Wednesday when he will ask Gibson to prioritize hiring a VA Montana director.

Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, also plans to discuss access-to-care issues at the VA when the two meet.

After 16 months as director of the VA Montana Health Care System, Christine Gregory announced she would retire at the end of June. Her abrupt departure coincided with a federal investigation’s findings of problems in the nationwide veteran health care system.

Within days of Gregory’s announcement, a national audit revealed that patients seeking care through the Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs Medical Center outside Helena are waiting an average of 48 days for their first appointment with a primary care doctor — more than three times longer than the department’s goal of 14 days.

Montana’s sites at Fort Harrison and Billings are among about a third of the sites audited that are flagged for further investigation.

VA officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether Gregory’s retirement is related to the federal investigation and she has refused to speak to the media.

Gregory was appointed director in February 2013 to replace the long-embattled Robin Korogi, who in August 2012 was reassigned to Denver after a protracted uproar about her inability to lead at the Helena-area hospital.

“Montana veterans have earned high-quality, timely care,” Tester told The Billings Gazette. “VA Montana must hire a director who understands the needs of rural veterans and is committed to improving access to care. I will continue to push the VA to find a replacement for Christine Gregory in a timely manner.”

The VA Rocky Mountain Network, which serves Montana and is located in Glendale, Colo., has collected applications for the director’s position. The application period is now closed. Tester said he heard Tuesday that the Network director hopes to send the name of a potential replacement for Gregory to the VA secretary by the end of July. State and regional VA officials would not disclose the number of applicants or a timeline for the hire.

Tester said he plans to ask Sloan those questions when they meet Wednesday.

Johnny Ginnity, associate director of the VA Montana Health Care System, is serving as acting director pending the selection of a new director.

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