Guest opinion: Senate must break gridlock to put U.S. veterans first

Billings Gazette

by Senator Jon Tester

It was just a few months ago that a veteran from southeast Montana contacted me for help.

He was undergoing chemotherapy and halfway through his treatment he was notified that HealthNet, the contractor hired to run the VA Choice Program, failed to approve his doctor’s request for additional treatment and his chemotherapy would be cut short.

After sitting on the phone trying to get this ironed out, he called my office for help.

That’s when I turned up the heat on HealthNet and the VA, and they finally processed his paperwork and he was able to continue receiving chemo.

Let’s be clear, it’s my honor and job to help all Montanans, but it shouldn’t take a United States Senator calling the VA to get a veteran life-saving medical care. That’s just plain unacceptable.

And that’s the problem here. The Choice Program is screwed up. The goal of Choice is good – to ensure veterans can access care outside the VA if they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles away from a VA clinic.

But the combination of a disastrous roll-out, unintended restrictions on the VA, and the ineptitude of HealthNet, has forced veterans to wait even longer for care.

So after holding more than 20 veterans listening sessions across Montana, I sat down with Republicans and Democrats to write the Veterans’ First Act to hold the VA accountable improve access to care, and address workforce shortage at VA facilities.

My bill will allow the VA to work directly with local health clinics and hospitals to deliver care to veterans in their hometown while giving the VA the ability to get rid of contractors like HealthNet.

It will also ensure that community providers will be paid in a timelier manner.

I know the Veterans’ First Act is a step forward because we wrote it after hearing directly from the folks who use the VA, and health care providers who serve our veterans.

The bill is supported by the American Legion, VFW, and Disabled American Veterans.

But like many good ideas in Washington, the Veterans’ First Act has fallen victim to gridlock and politics.

Despite receiving support from every senator on the Veterans Affairs’ Committee, the Veterans’ First Act is now being held up by one senator who is blocking the bill. One Republican senator is standing between millions of veterans across the nation and the care they deserve.

Election year politics are nothing new, but playing politics with America’s veterans is unacceptable. That’s why I’m calling on the Senate to step up, stop the politics, and move this bill forward.

I want every Montana veteran to know that I will continue to fight for you. Together, we will break through the Washington gridlock, and together we will hold the politicians accountable who have turned their backs on your service.

Because saying “thank you” to our veterans is not enough. Our veterans deserve action—and they deserve elected officials who will stand up for them and not stand in their way.

To my colleagues in the Senate: It is time to end the politics and deliver on the promises we made to America’s veterans. It is time to pass the Veterans’ First Act cause folks like my friend in southeast Montana can’t wait.