JORDAN — A man fighting to keep ill veterans closer to their homes and families in Eastern Montana has enlisted the political muscle of Montana's U.S. congressional delegation to help.

So far, Ronald W. Barnes has captured the attention of Montana's Democratic senior senator, Max Baucus.

Barnes, administrator of the Garfield County Health Center in Jordan, population 364, is seeking a contract with the VA Montana Health Care System to provide long-term nursing home care to local veterans. To date, the VA has denied his request.

The VA Montana Health Care System is committed to providing the best quality health care to the more than 100,000 Veterans throughout Montana, said Robin Korogi, director of VA Montana Health Care System.

“We contract with 36 nursing homes representing 28 cities across the state,” Korogi said.

“When making a decision to contract with a private nursing home, we have an obligation to follow criteria that ensures efficiency and effectiveness of scarce resources.”

In a letter from Korogi to Barnes, Korogi said Garfield County has seven veterans, the “smallest number in the state.”

“If there's only one veteran in Garfield County, that's enough for me,” Barnes said.

The closest place for Jordan veterans in need of long-term care is at the Miles City Clinic and Community Living Center, about 85 miles away. The distance makes it difficult for friends and family to visit with any regularity and almost impossible during the brutal winter months.

“At the very least, our veterans should have a choice of staying in their home town,” Barnes said. “I'd like to see our veterans get an opportunity for care in Jordan instead of being forced out.”

Barnes said he was prompted to seek the contract with the VA after a 93-year-old World War II veteran had to leave his home, his daughter and his blind wife to move from Jordan in order to receive VA care.

“His reward for service to his country was to leave his family and friends and be isolated,” Barnes said.

It was Peg Pierson's father who triggered Barnes' fight. He died in December.

She has nothing but praise for the care her father received at the Miles City Clinic and Community Living Center. Staff became like family, and many attended her father's funeral.

Still, the 170-mile round trip between Jordan and Miles City was taxing and time-consuming. She was able to visit only once a week.

“Had my mother not had me take her to see him, she would not have seen him the past year-and-a-half of his life,” Pierson said. “It's not an issue of care. It's an issue of bureaucracy where someone above doesn't want to bother with the veterans or the issue.”

Baucus' staff has been in contact with Barnes and is working to address his concerns, said Kate Downen, communications director for Baucus.

“Max understands veterans' access to long-term nursing home care is a serious issue,” Downen said. “Max looks forward to working with the VA to make sure we are doing everything we can to improve the availability of nursing home care to vets across Montana.”

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.