Tester seeks funding for additional Veterans Center in state

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Veterans Centers have played a crucial role in the recovery and rehabilitation of combat veterans and their families.

The centers have provided services unavailable at other VA Health Care facilities, including readjustment and family counseling, mental health screening, employment assessment, outreach and education, assistance with disability claims and myriad other services. These recovery programs can give veterans the skills and opportunities they need to find good-paying jobs.

Nearly 200,000 veterans and their families, including 126,284 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan accessed these services at Veterans Centers across the United States. Nearly 40 percent of these veterans did not receive services at any other VA health care facility, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

While popular among veterans, the services provided by Veterans Centers are not readily accessible to all veterans.

That's the case U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is pleading to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki as Tester fights for a Veterans Center to be located in Helena. Though Helena is home to the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison, area veterans must travel up to two hours to access the closest Veterans Center in Great Falls.

"With over 7,000 veterans living in the Helena area and an ever-increasing amount of new veterans returning home from war, local access to these services is critical," Tester, who is on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to Shinseki.

Montana's Veterans Centers are already operating at full capacity. The opening of a new facility would allow them to better meet the needs of the veterans they serve. Tester is asking Shinseki to provide adequate funding for the Veterans Center in Helena. Tester's request comes as Shinseki begins developing the Department of Veterans Affairs' fiscal year 2013 budget request.

This isn't the first time Tester has asked for financial help to create Veterans Centers. In 2009, the VA approved 28 new Vet Centers nationwide, including Tester's requests for two new Vet Centers in Kalispell and Great Falls.

Tester is also asking the Secretary to include sufficient funding to continue the VA's State Extended Care Facilities grant program. These facilities have provided accommodations for veterans across the country who want a supportive living environment and resident-centered, long-term care from trained professionals. The state of Montana has submitted an application to construct such a facility in Butte.

"The service and care provided by these VA facilities are of particular importance to the State of Montana and its veterans," Tester said. With an estimated 108,000 veterans, Montana is second only to Alaska in its veteran population.