VA Secretary Proclaims Montana ‘Ground Zero’ for Telehealth Expansion

Sec. Wilke stopped in Kalispell during four-day swing through Montana visiting VA facilities

By Micah Drew
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks to the press during a visit to the Kalispell VA Clinic on Sept. 29, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Before the coronavirus pandemic began limiting in-person visits to hospitals and clinics across the country, Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities were conducting around 40,000 mental health telehealth appointments a month, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Tuesday during a stop in Kalispell.

In June and July, that number grew to more than 905,000.

“During this pandemic, we’ve been able to expand telehealth exponentially, not just in Montana but across the nation,” Wilke said during a press conference outside the Kalispell VA Clinic. “If anything is going to come out of the response to this crisis that will stay with us, that is the value of telehealth when it comes to addressing mental health issues.”

The secretary touted a pilot program of rural VA telehealth clinics taking place in Eureka. The town of just over 1,000 is the site of the first telehealth pod inside of VFW Post 6786, which opened in November. It’s also the first VA telehealth site that isn’t part of an existing VA facility — the nearest VA clinic is 65 miles away in Kalispell — and is a model for a larger footprint the VA plans to roll out over the next few years.

Veterans Affairs is finalizing a national plan partnering with technology company Philips and Walmart Inc. to establish pod-like clinics inside the supermarkets, similar to how the VFW clinic is designed.

“Montana is ground zero, it’s the test bed for that,” Wilke said, extolling a renewed focus on reaching rural veterans across the American west.

Another area the Treasure State is ground zero is suicide prevention, according to Wilke.

“This state has been hit probably harder than any other state in the country when it comes to veterans taking their lives by suicide,” Wilke said.

Data released by VA show that in 2017 Montana had a veteran suicide rate of 57 per 100,000, significantly higher than the national rate of 31 per 100,000.

Wilke pointed to new legislation, S785, that President Donald Trump is expected to sign in the next week, which will allow local VA leadership to increase financial support to localities, charities and nongovernmental entities to further outreach to veterans and fight the “epidemic of suicide among veterans.”

The bill, titled the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Bill, was spearheaded by Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

Among other things, the legislation will place suicide prevention coordinators in all VA hospitals, increase the number of VA telehealth locations, and study integrative health programs as well as the impact of living at high altitude on veteran suicide risk.

“It goes the extra mile in expanding our understanding of mental health conditions and their treatments, to ensure that we’re doing our part in properly treating veterans for invisible wounds of war,” Tester wrote in a press release.

During his four-day swing through Montana, Wilke visited VA facilities in Billings, Helena and Missoula, pointing out the increasing size of the VA presence in the state and the high approval rating for veteran care.

In July, Missoula broke ground on a new $31 million, 52,000 square foot VA clinic that is set to open in late 2021 and a new facility is planned for Kalispell in the near future.

“I want to thank the leadership of the Montana VA because what you have here in Montana is some of the highest approval rating of veterans care in this country,” Wilke said. “Montana is really the epitome of the renaissance that’s taken place at VA in the last two years.”

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