VA increases health care travel reimbursement

Helena Independent Record

by Martin J. Kidston

HELENA – The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday announced that disabled veterans who travel for health care will see their mileage reimbursement increase for the first time in 31 years. Beginning on Friday, the rate will go from 11 cents a mile to 28.5 cents a mile.

The reimbursement, sought by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., was approved by VA Secretary James Peake, who is expected to visit the state sometime this month to see firsthand the distance Montana veterans must travel for care.

"Pretty early this morning, Secretary Peake gave me a call and said he would increase the mileage," Tester said. "This is good news, and while 28.5 cents a mile isn't a lot, it's better than 11 cents a mile."

The new mileage reimbursement represents the first increase since 1977. The formerly low reimbursement rate was a standing issue expressed by veterans across the state during Tester's yearlong listening tour.

Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, initially sought the same reimbursement federal employees receive of 48.5 cents a mile.

However, Tester said, Republican committee members trimmed the rate in a compromise to the current 28.5 cents a mile.

"This is a historic day for disabled veterans," Tester said. "It should show veterans in every corner of this country that we're serious about making good on the promise that we made to them."

Tester included $125 million in a 2008 appropriations bill to pay for the mileage increase. Former Sen. Conrad Burns, whom Tester replaced, sponsored a similar bill in 2001 to no avail.

Now, with veterans issues back in the fore, President Bush signed the newest legislation last month, authorizing the long-sought increase.

"Way back when, in 1977 when I was in college, gas was a little over 60 cents a gallon," Tester said. "It didn't cost me much to fill my Vega up then. A lot has changed since then, and it's time for the VA to start catching up."

The average gas price in Montana currently stands at $3 a gallon, up from $2.05 a year ago. Nationally, the average price for regular unleaded is $2.98, up from just $2.15 this time last year.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he'll continue working with Tester on veterans issues, while Jerry LaFountain, a longtime commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart in Montana, said disabled vets have been waiting for years for the increase.

"Jon listened to us," LaFountain said. "He realized right away it was a priority, and he went to work to finally get something done."