Sen. Tester supports veterans center

Ravalli Republic

by John Cramer

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said Thursday he would try to secure federal funding for a Hamilton non-profit group that aids Bitterroot veterans.

Tester said his efforts to support the Valley Veterans Service Center were prompted by the growing number of Montana servicemen and service women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The center has primarily used donations to help more than 2,000 Bitterroot veterans since it opened in 2006, but  it could close by the end of the year if additional funding isn't secured, said Ron Skinner, the center's director.

"I'm very familiar with their work:' Tester said. "They do real great work without much money, so we'll go to the wall to get them some.'

Tester, who serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he would push for more funding in the upcoming Omnibus Appropriations bill.

But he said it would be more effective to increase the budget of the Veterans Affairs Department, so the VA can improve its physical and mental health care and other services for troops.

Tester said he would have his staff follow up with the Valley Veterans Service Center to assess their financial needs.

"We need to do something to help them," he said.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee discussed rural health care for veterans at a hearing Thursday.

"I focused on mental health issues," Tester said "And the truth is these groups (such as the Valley Veterans Service Center) are critically important, especially in mental health care."

The center, which has a budget this year of $39,000, is run by volunteers but is looking to hire its first full-time employee.

The center provides a range of services to help Bitterroot veterans qualify for medical, disability and other benefits through the VA Department.

The center is seeking federal and state funding and intends to step up its public awareness efforts to find more private donors.

The VA Department last month provided nearly $22 million to its regional health care systems in an effort to improve services for veterans in rural areas.

The Hamilton center has applied for some of those funds to fund a pilot program that uses video conferencing to replace old-fashioned paperwork.

Montana has about 109,000 veterans, including more than 5,600 in Ravalli County, but only 23 VA service centers, creating a severe backlog of cases.

Ravalli County's veterans had to drive to the VA's two services offices in Missoula before the Hamilton center opened and will have to do so again if the center closes.