MISSOULA, Mont. - U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines introduced a new measure to let the Veterans Administration expand its Missoula outpatient clinic.
The expansion plan would increase the clinic by 24 percent.
Both Tester and Daines say the clinic is too crowded, offers little privacy and veterans cannot get the help they need when they need it.
Turns out the clinic project has been waiting for one year for congressional approval. Missoula is not alone. The senators say another 24 VA medical facilities in 15 states are faced with a similar problem.
It is not the only challenge facing Montana veterans and their families. It’s been two years since the VA made headlines for mishandling patient appointments. Back then vets waited months just to get in; some died.
And now, after months of telling Montana veterans’ stories, we have found another family hit hard by bureaucracy.
They live off the two-lane highway that snakes through the Potomac Valley on the way from Missoula to Great Falls. Follow it far enough and you end up at the Hults’.
Jolene Hult remembered how she met her husband, Navy veteran and logger Ralph Hult.
“He was this cute bartender that I was supposed to stay away from,” she said, as she sat in a living room cluttered with memories and pictures of their lives together.
Ralph told her he’d served in Vietnam on the USS Bainbridge.
“He loved life to the max,” she said. “Loved his family. Loved his friends.”
But now all she has left are the pictures, memories and a stack of bills from the VA.
“Half the time,” Jolene said, “I don't know which bill to pay.”
There’s no shortage of them.
Ralph died this year from a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Jolene has a medical office’s letter that links his cancer to Agent Orange exposure. But the Hults ended up using their nest egg to pay for a bone marrow transplant. Jolene’s insurance kicked in. But the biggest headache was the VA.
Jolene’s daughter, Corrie, explained it this way. “They make it so complicated to get benefits and it shouldn't be.”
The family decided to pursue compensation for Agent Orange exposure. We checked the VA’s website.
It explains a "blue water" vet like Ralph -- one who doesn't step on land -- doesn't need to prove the link between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Agent Orange.
But the Hults said the VA demanded they see a compensation doctor.
Then the worst happened. Ralph died one day before that appointment.
Jolene explained what happened next. “My sister and I stopped at the clinic, and I told the gal Ralph had passed away, and she looked at me and said, ‘Sorry for your loss, he has to be here, case closed.’ And then she turned her back on us.”
Corrie is frustrated. She had all the documents to prove where Ralph had served. “We have proof he was in the Navy. They know exactly where the USS Bainbridge was. Why should we have to prove it? Here, we have the document, do you need a copy?”
For Jolene, there will be no retirement this year. She works now for insurance. There are no more family pictures with Ralph.
But these two women talked to us for a simple reason.
“Like I said, I hope this helps another family,” Corrie said.
The Hults are sending Ralph's file to Tester's office for possible help.
We'll keep following your stories. Share them with us via email or Facebook.
In the next week, we will interview the new interim head of the VA’s Montana health care system.