Tester's rural-vet bill sails through vote

Helena Independent Record

by Martin Kidston

A bill to improve health care for rural veterans received unanimous support Thursday from the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, readying the legislation for a full vote by the Senate in the days to come.

Introduced by Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the bill was included in the Caregiver and Veterans Health Services Act, which aims to improve the care received by rural veterans, including the 110,000 active and former service members who call Montana home.

Tester, a member of the VA Committee, has worked for the past 30 months to improve health care for Montana vets.

Upon taking office, Tester began a statewide listening tour, soliciting the concerns of Montana veterans, who shared accounts of a VA system over-burdened by several years of war and a growing backlog for claims.

At the time, disabled veterans were receiving just 11 cents a mile in gas reimbursement when traveling across the state for medical treatment.

Tester helped raise the mileage to 41.5 cents, an amount that would be locked in if the current bill passes into law.

"With this bill, I went back to Montana, heard from veterans, came back to this committee, and was able to put some good things into this bill," Tester told the committee chairman Thursday. "There's no better group that we need to support than the veterans of this country."

As written, the bill expands health care and medical services for all veterans who live in rural America, including those in Montana.

The bill would also authorize the VA to award grants to service groups that transport vets to medical appointments and allow the VA to work with community mental health centers to provide services to Iraq and Afghan vets who live in areas where the VA cannot provide such care.

Since its introduction, the bill has received broad support from veteran organizations, including those in Montana.

"This legislation will strengthen support for rural veterans across the nation," said Mike Clouse of the Montana Disabled American Veterans.

"It will boost transportation opportunities in rural America, and it will help out Native American fellow servicemen and women."

Clouse was referring to a portion of the bill that would establish Indian Health Coordinators in areas with a high Native American veteran population.

Tester noted that the legislation would also direct the VA to establish as many as five centers of excellence across the country to research how best to provide health care to rural veterans.

"There are so many pieces of this legislation that will benefit veterans in Montana and across the country, especially in finding ways to improve mental health care for vets of Iraq and Afghanistan," said Dave MacLean, the former Montana commander of the American Legion.