Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
A dream brought once again to the forefront by a Havre veteran last fall has become a reality Rep. Denny Rehberg announced Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to open a VA clinic in Havre. “Immediate access to quality health care is critical for the thousands of Montana veterans living in north-central Montana,” Rehberg said in a press release. “The new clinic in Havre is a positive step in providing better access to and will greatly benefit our service men and women, as well as the Havre community.” Merril Lundman of Havre started a petition drive last fall to request the creation of a VA clinic in Havre, after Havre was passed over for selection in favor of Cut Bank and Lewistown. Lundman, who died on Dec. 22, contacted the offices of Rehberg and Montana’s U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and sent them the petitions and letters of support. “(The petitions) certainly got their attention,” said Teresa Bell of Fort Harrison, public affairs officer for the VA Montana Health Care System. “They inquired immediately after receiving the information.” Lundman was representing veterans in north-central Montana who had to travel to receive their VA benefits the closest VA clinics were in Great Falls and Glasgow. Baucus has requested and received preLiminary confirmation that this new clinic will be named for the man who made it happen, Merril Lundman. “This is tremendous news for the veterans of Havre and all along the Hi-Line. I couldn’t be more proud to have had a hand in making this a reality for the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country,” Baucus said. “The very least we can do for these brave and honorable Montanans is make sure they are taken care of once they get home. “But my excitement over this clinic is twinged with sadness,” Baucus added. “The loss of Merril, so close to the fulfillment of his dream, is tragic. This clinic is a testament to his dedication to his country and his fellow soldiers, and I believe it would be fitting to make sure his legacy lives on through the clinic, by naming it after this great American.” “A VA clinic in Havre will access a new part of Montana’s Hi-Line that has always fallen between other VA clinics and caused veterans to travel,” Joe Underkofler, director of the VA Montana Health Care system, said in the press release. Bell said the VA will now put out a request for proposals from health care providers in Havre. The VA will award a contract to an existing facility in Havre, which will treat qualifying veterans and then be reimbursed by the VA. She said the VA hopes to have the community-based outpatient clinic operating in Havre by midsummer. The clinic is expected to serve about 2,800 veterans in Blaine, Chouteau, Hill and Liberty counties. Cindy Smith, executive director of the Bullhook Community Health Center, said the center has not received any word from the VA yet, but has been working with Baucus and Tester to try to get a contract offered for a VA clinic in Havre. Smith said the health center’s staff would provide the services it recently added a practicing physician and also has a nurse practitioner and a care manager, with plans in the works to add dental care and a licensed counselor if it were awarded the contract. She said she didn’t know if more care providers would be needed. “It depends on how busy our schedule gets,” she said. “We’ve been getting more and more busy.” Dave Henry, president and chief executive officer of Northern Montana Hospital, said the hospital has been working with the VA since the 1990s to try to get a Havre clinic, most recently after Lundman started his petition drive last year. Henry said the hospital will certainly put forth a proposal for a contract with the VA, which will include the fact that Northern already has all of the diagnostic equipment and specialists needed for the service. “We serve these folks now so it will be great for them to be able to stay home for their other care,” Henry said. Bell said the VA is continuing to expand its health services in Montana. The new clinic in Cut Bank, which operates in the same fashion as the Havre clinic will, opened Jan. 7 and the new clinic in Lewistown should be open and running in the next couple of months, she said. The VA has also agreed to expand its facilities in Billings. “There is a to move to a larger space in Billings so we won’t have to be so creative in scheduling,” she said. She said that the VA Montana Health Care System is continuing to grow, with more veterans from rural areas seeking access. “We’re very exccited to get authorization to expand,” Bell said.