Tester rolls out bills on water upgrades, Veterans Choice

by Alex Ross, Havre Daily News

Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont, said Wednesday that he has sponsored two pieces of legislation regarding the Veterans Choice program and co-sponsored a third that would help rural communities improve their water and wastewater treatment systems.

Tester said rural communities often don’t have the resources needed to maintain their water infrastructure due to a lack of revenue, though they often have to conform with the same federal and state safety standards as larger towns and cities,

“Rural America is the backbone of this country, but our rural communities will die without access to clean water,” Tester said.

The Rural Community Assistance Act would use $15 million over five years to provide towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 with the technical support necessary to upgrade water infrastructure and ensure residents have access to clean water, Tester said.

The bill would establish something akin to a circuit rider used on irrigation projects, where a roving expert would travel to qualifying communities to determine what can be done to update water systems, Tester said.

A press release from Tester’s office said the proposed legislation would also allow a state to use up to two percent of their state revolving loan fund to provide technical assistance in updating rural wastewater treatment plants.

Tester said that he has also introduced legislation to renew and reform the much criticized Veteran’s Choice Program, set to expire later this year.

The VA Performance Accountability and Contractor Transparency Act, also known as PACT Act, would renew the program and require that the details of VA contracts that are more than $100 million and provide updates to congress. Tester, a ranking member of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee, said such changes are meant to hold contractors like Health Net, a contractor that schedules appointments and processes payments for Montana veterans, accountable.

A second bill, the Veteran’s Choice Improvement Act would make the VA the primary rather than the secondary payer, Tester said, adding that would mean veterans would pay less in out-of-pocket expenses and align the choice program with the VA’s other programs in community care and allow the VA and health providers who take part in the program to better share medical records.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, also known as the Veteran’s Choice Program was meant to address the problem of veterans being unable to receive care either because of distance from a facility within the Veteran’s Health Administration or long wait times. Lengthy wait times have continued and health providers have also had difficulty receiving payments from the Veterans Administration.

Tester said that despite good intentions, the execution of the VA Choice has been a disaster.

Northern Montana Hospital announced in January that it would no longer take part in the Veterans Choice Program.