Tester vows improved mileage, more services for veterans

Great Falls Tribune

by Kristen Cates

After touring the Great Falls Veterans Affairs Primary Care Clinic on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., renewed his vow to continue to fight for better medical care for veterans.

This was the first time that Tester, D-Big Sandy, had toured the facility since taking office in 2007. He met briefly with a couple of doctors in the clinic, located on the second floor of Central Montana Hos­pital, and learned that their biggest concern is recruiting staff.

"I see a pretty nice facility that needs more," Tester said after the tour. "It's under­staffed."

Veterans who travel from across the region to receive treatment at the clinic have done so with a low mileage reimbursement, Tester said.

For years, the VA mileage reimbursement rate for dis­abled veterans traveling for health care was 11 cents per mile. This year, Tester helped secure $125 million in federal funding to increase the reim­bursement rate to 28.5 cents per mile.

"We're going to work to get it bumped up even higher," Tester said.

The money hasn't been implemented yet, and Veterans Service Officer Dave Capps in Great Falls said even once it is, the increase won't come close to covering costs.

"It doesn't even pay for gas, much less wear and tear on the vehicle," he said.

The Great Falls clinic serves approximately 13,000 veterans, Capps said. Up until a month ago, when the VA clinic in Cut Bank opened, veterans were traveling from as far away as Browning, Shelby and Lincoln to use the services in Great Falls.

Federal funding for discre­tionary programs— such as med­ical services for veterans — is often very hard to come by, Capps said, because Congress can decide it wants to dedicate lit­tle or no money to those pro­grams.

The need for veterans' services increases as soldiers return home from war, Capps said. He added he is working with one veteran who needs medical attention, but will have to wait two to three weeks to see a physician.

"It's not uncommon," Capps said.

Tester said he has not been blind to this need, noting he has worked for veterans' services since taking office a year ago.

"I didn't think we were keeping up with the demand that's there. These folks sacrificed a lot to serve," he said.

In the next year, Tester, who serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he would like to do more to get services for soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"My overall goal is to make sure we do right by our veterans," he said.