U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale met with veterans in Kalispell on Thursday to discuss issues ranging from VA case backlogs and apathy at VA facilities to the lack of a VA-approved mammography expert in the state.
Over a dozen people attended a listening session at Sykes, during which time Rosendale, the current state auditor, listened to system-level concerns in veteran care filtered through personal stories and first-hand accounts.
The Republican said the purpose of the listening session was “to come up here for some decent feedback.”
Rosendale will face U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in the November general election. Tester, who has served as a Montana senator since 2006, is a ranking member of the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Dr. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, an Air Force veteran who lost to Rosendale in the Republican primary in early June, initiated the meeting with a call for attendees “to give our feedback and to give our opinions and insights that can help Matt as our next United States Senator to make sure that the federal government fulfills its promises to us.”
Rosendale, referencing to his father and brother’s experience as Marines, agreed with many attendees from the outset that care and services for veterans could often be inefficient, inattentive or outright deficient. “I’ve heard for the past 12 years about how pieces of legislation have been passed and I don’t see any improvements in the delivery of benefits for the veterans,” he said.
Which is why, he said, it was critical for attendees to clarify issues and gaps in care specifically afflicting Montana veterans.
“If I don’t get feedback from you on where these inefficiencies are and where improvements can be made, then what we end up seeing is additional legislation being passed, somebody taking credit for it and no improvements being made for the delivery of those services.”
Rosendale deferred to those gathered around the table in Sykes’ side room to lead the discussion. “You guys are much, much better positioned to tell me where those deficiencies are and where we need to focus attention, and I’m here to take notes and listen to that.”
And with that, he resigned to note-taking as the conversation traveled around the table to veterans who served in Vietnman, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some had completed their military careers in recent years, others decades ago, and still others work today as caregivers. Yet the concerns converged over several ongoing issues with veterans’ care — namely, frustration with the VA’s lack of accountability, extremely long wait times and, especially in Montana, requirements to travel large distances for simple procedures.
The VA remains the government’s largest agency, with a budget of $186.5 billion in fiscal year 2018. But it has long been dogged by reports of dangerously long wait times, poor standards of care and administrative systems clogged to the point of standstill. The turbulence extends to the top; Trump’s attempted nomination of Dr. Ronny Jackson, the physician to the president, to succeed David Shulkin as head of the VA foundered in April after Tester raised red flags over allegations that Jackson over-prescribed medication, oversaw a toxic work environment and drank on the job. In July, Trump held a rally in Great Falls to support Rosendale’s campaign while lambasting “two-faced” Tester’s opposition to Jackson.
The discussion on Thursday, however, largely steered clear of the president, Tester, or other inflamed political issues. Several participants agreed that the Veterans Choice program, which intended to open avenues for care outside VA facilities, was, in practice, deeply flawed — several told stories of abandoned appointments, missed diagnoses and claims not paid for. Many viewed the recently passed VA Mission Act, intended to shore up many of the issues with the Choice program, with skepticism.
“We keep seeing all this money go to the VA,” said one veteran of Afghanistan, “but as for health care, we don’t seem to see that.”
John Wise, a veteran of Vietnam, added that staffing shortages “seem to be a large issue” for VA facilities in Montana.
Jonathan Devine, a veteran of Afghanistan whose Facebook video criticizing wait times and mixed-up medications at the VA went viral earlier this year, called on Rosendale to advocate for better training protocols and vetting processes in VA hires, as well as mechanisms to help veterans adjust from life in combat to civilian jobs.
Mike Shepard, also a veteran of Vietnam, criticized the VA as unaccountable and in critical need of new leadership. “How do you get a group that is unionized and ensconced to be held accountable?” he asked.
Shepard added that 11 percent of Montana’s population is now composed of veterans, and asked Rosendale pointedly, “If you are elected, are you going to have an office in Kalispell? Because everyone seems to forget about Northwest Montana.”
At the conclusion of the listening session, Rosendale thanked those present for their input, which had been recorded in a “barrel-full” of notes.
If elected, Rosendale said, “we’re going to have to go up [to Congress] and make difficult decisions, and put the politics aside to make sure that these services are delivered. That’s what my goal is.”
Afterward, Doug Gilbertson, a veteran of Vietnam, said he felt good about the issues raised. Rosendale, he said “was definitely in listening mode, took copious notes, and that’s a good thing.”
He shook his head. “I wish him luck.”
Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 758-4439.