Months After Construction, Montana VA Mental Health Facility Remains Understaffed

WE OWE OUR VETS: Get mental health facility up, running

Great Falls Tribune
April 19, 2012  

The Veterans Administration took a solid first step in the right direction reassigning embattled VA Montana Director Robin Korogi to the Denver office.

The move followed a series of Billings Gazette stories investigating Korogi’s inability to recruit inpatient psychiatrists for the new acute psychiatric wing of the $7 million, 24,000-square-foot inpatient mental health facility at Fort Harrison in Helena. The eight-bed acute-care wing is empty, since there aren’t qualified physicians to provide treatment.

Where are all the doctors? VA nurse manager Jerri Kettman shows Robert A. Petzel, M.D., undersecretary for health in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Sen. Jon Tester, center, VA's the new -- but empty -- inpatient mental health facility at Fort Harrison June 3, 2011. Its eight-bed acute-care wing remains unstaffed. VA officials say it has not been able to find and hire providers needed to open it. (Independent Record)

So Montana service men and women are forced to go out of state.

Now the pressure is on and the VA needs to align concentrated efforts and get the job done —no excuses.

The biggest one propagated by Korogi is that because there is a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists who can make twice the roughly $180,000 annual salary offered elsewhere, no one is applying. She says the requirement of on-call duty is a deterrent too.

Don’t buy it. An annual salary of $180,000 with generous federal benefits is good money anywhere and great money in Montana. We don’t think salary is the primary factor for most physician’s career choices, particularly psychiatrists.

Montana is a fantastic place to live, which is why we can recruit engineers, teachers, insurance professionals, laborers —all of whom can make more money in other markets.

A long string of former VA Montana staff say Korogi created a “toxic” workplace, rife with firings for no cause, intimidation and fear. There has been an exodus of longtime employees quitting or retiring early to get out of there.

What can’t happen now, however, is any delay in recruiting to fill the vacancies in Helena and opening the eight-bed wing. There is a lot of repair work that will need to be done to bring back workplace morale, but that has to be done in tandem with physician recruitment. Typical practices aren’t good enough. The VA is bound morally to employ full-on head hunting tactics.

Here’s one example of why.

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