- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - An internal evaluation of the VA Montana Health Care System saw its performance rating downgraded to one star for July, August and September, compared with two stars for the same period in 2015, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines announced Wednesday.

Public affairs officer Mike Garcia said that officials are reviewing the report and looking for areas of improvement, but he notes the star ratings are not equivalent to those one might find for a hotel or restaurant. The nation’s VA hospitals are rated on a bell curve, and there will always be a dozen five-star facilities and 12 or 13 one-star facilities, he said.

Veterans should remain confident that they are receiving high quality health care in Montana from the VA, and that the system is always evaluating its performance and working to improve, Garcia said.

The hospital’s patient satisfaction scores continue to improve from 102nd out of 129 facilities in October, November and December of 2015 to 40th in the most recent report, he noted.

VA Montana Health Care System’s score for continuity of mental health has been low for the past six quarters, Garcia said. But he added that’s because up to 20 percent of veterans are receiving mental health services outside the VA system so they can be seen more quickly or closer to home.

“Just because we have a low rank it doesn’t mean we have a problem,” he said. “It could be a result of rural health care.”

Another metric where the hospital scored lower was leadership. Former Director John Ginnity resigned in June, and there have been other vacancies in senior leadership, Garcia said.

Daines, R-Montana, issued a statement saying it was disturbing that the hospital at Fort Harrison “is performing far below a level that Montana veterans deserve,” adding that “Clearly, major improvements are needed so that our vets get the best possible care.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said veterans tell him they’re happy with the care they get through the VA, although he’d like to see wait times reduced. Tester is supporting legislation that would help cut wait times and make it easier for veterans to seek specialty care outside the VA.

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