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"When we got to looking at the topics, it just wasn’t the spirit of the interview we wanted to do,” a VA Montana spokesman told The Billings Gazette.

When The Billings Gazette wanted to know more about what seems like an unending exodus of administrators and professionals leaving the VA Montana system, we were told that those departures and staff turnover were really not what bureaucrats were interested in talking about.

In other words, the government — the part charged with caring for our veterans — didn't feel like doing its job, answering difficult questions about its leadership or service.

Quite frankly, VA, we don't care what kind of false sunshine you'd like us to put on a story. We have a word for that in this business: it's "spin."

Save that for your employee newsletter. From the looks of it, you need to do plenty of work on that as turnover continues.

And so we've taken to the editorial page and the opinion-writing process to describe what should have been included in a news story. We'd like to tell more clearly why staff turnover seems to plague the Montana VA. We'd like to detail what that is doing to our state's veterans. And, we'd like to explain turnover at the highest levels, including having a dentist sit and do nothing for years at the cost of more than $250,000 annually.

But the VA doesn't want to talk about that. That's not the spirit of the story it would like to see.

We'd argue their response isn't the spirit of communication we'd like to see.

That we've run plenty of stories critical of the VA shouldn't matter. In fact, you'd think leaders at the VA would want to get out in front of this story, knowing full well we had the data showing high staff turnover. Instead, the leadership in Montana VA and higher simply refused to talk about the situation and then seems to wonder why there is such a degree of distrust and dissatisfaction.

For his part, Montana Sen. Jon Tester has helped reform the VA to get better service for veterans in Montana and beyond. Tester has carried many bills aimed at cleaning up the system and improving care. However, if Tester really wants to make a difference, we'd suggest it's high time to make VA transparency and accountability mandatory — not just to members of Congress, but to the public, including the media.

It simply should not be acceptable for an organization like Montana VA to refuse to answer questions because it doesn't like them. The points that were raised in a recent story about staff turnover speak directly to the quality of care Montana veterans are receiving. The public cannot demand change and cannot be assured that our nation's veterans are receiving the care they're entitled to unless we have an honest, open accounting of how the system is running.

The VA can act like this here in Montana and across the country because it suffers from a lack of accountability. By refusing just a single reporter's request, there is no consequence. It can hide behind the layers of bureaucracy.

Something has to be done to force the VA to accountability. Until the federal government can answer questions honestly, timely and unflinchingly, an ombudsman or independent agency should have the power to seek questions and give honest answers.

No comment is simply unacceptable when every person working there is a public employee, and every person who comes through the doors needing help is someone who served this country. Veterans deserve better and so do the taxpayers.

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The Billings Gazette


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