Tester introduces bill to reimburse veterans traveling to Vet Centers

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Mental trauma, the kind known only to those in military uniform, is just as significant as a blood-soaked bullet wound, but is not treated the same when it comes to reimbursing veterans for medical-related travel.

If one of Montana’s 108,000 veterans travels to a Veterans Affairs health care clinic, they are reimbursed at 41.5 cents per mile. If they travel to one of the state’s four Vet Centers that focus on mental health care and readjustment counseling, they receive no reimbursement.

“Bullet wounds are often glamorized,” said Edward E. Saunders, a retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. from Laurel. “But if a veteran has emotional issues to contend with, he’s basically told to cowboy up. Battle wounds are more than what we see behind a bandage.”

Saunders said he was embarrassed to learn of the biased treatment toward those with mental health issues. That puts him in company with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He said he, too, assumed veterans were reimbursed equally.

Tester has introduced legislation to equalize the travel reimbursement for veterans.

Tester said in a telephone interview that the issue wasn’t even on his radar. Vets “on the ground” in Montana were the impetus behind the legislation.

“Vets are a pretty straightforward bunch,” Tester said. “They tell you what they think, and they don’t sugarcoat it.”

The proposed bill would alter the VA’s definition of “Authorized Health Care Facilities” to include that state’s Vet Centers in Billings, Missoula, Kalispell and Great Falls.

The mileage reimbursement becomes especially critical when traveling the vast distances in rural Montana. With gas prices hovering at $3.45 a gallon, many forego the trip — and the help they need, Saunders said.

“This would not only fulfill the promise this country made to its veterans, but it would also help them as they integrate back into society,” Tester said.

Norman Paulson, past commander of the Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 10, of Billings said Tester’s legislation is the “correct thing to do.”

“Someone paid the price for us to be free, so let’s take care of them,” Paulson said. “It is our obligation.”

Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs, agreed that the law must be fixed and said he would be “delighted” to work with Tester on the proposed legislation.