Tester bill to aid rural veterans passes Senate on unanimous vote

The Missoulian

by Martin J. Kidston

HELENA – A bill written by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., passed the Senate on a unanimous vote Thursday, keeping what he described as America's promises to its veterans, particularly those living in rural America.

The Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, introduced by Tester on March 15, must be combined with a similar bill passed by the House before being sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

As written, the bill authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs to work with local mental health centers to provide care to veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. It also provides financial assistance to families who care for critically injured vets.

The bill passed the Senate on a 98-0 vote Thursday afternoon.

"Mental health is a big issue out there," Tester said following Thursday's vote. "Getting folks to treatment is big. We've had our share of successes, but even so, we've got more to do."

The bill also authorizes the VA to issue grants to veteran service organizations that drive vets to medical appointments. It will also direct the VA to establish American Indian health coordinators.

Tester said the VA must provide better care to veterans in rural America, including states with large Indian populations like Montana.

"The information is out there, showing that vets who live in rural America don't live as long as vets who live in urban centers," Tester said. "I'm hoping some of this helps rural vets have a better quality of life."

Veteran groups in Montana praised Thursday's action.

"We're just ecstatic about everything that's being done to help veterans," said Eric Kettenring, a team leader at the Missoula Vet Center. "The public support of veterans – the congressional and senatorial support at this time – is unprecedented in our history. If you ever had to be a combat veteran, now is the time."

After taking office in 2006, Tester began a listening tour that took him from Missoula to Helena to Billings, along with smaller communities scattered across the state.

During that tour, Tester solicited concerns from Montana vets who expressed a variety of frustrations, including a reimbursement rate of just 11 cents per mile paid to disabled vets who traveled to VA medical appointments.

Tester, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, fought successfully to raise the travel reimbursement rate from 11 cents to 41.5 cents per mile. The bill that passed Thursday would lock that rate at 41.5 cents per mile.

"These guys don't mince words – they tell it how it is," Tester said, reflecting back on the listening tour. "I was shocked as to what was going on out there. I don't know what the look on my face was when I found out they were getting just 11 cents a mile.

"We had a great day today," Tester added. "I feel very, very good about this."

Last month, legislation sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., requiring veterans to undergo face-to-face mental health screenings before deploying to war, passed the House.

Rehberg introduced that bill – the Post Deployment Health Assessment Act – in April. The bill has gone to the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has introduced a similar measure.

If passed, that bill will require troops to undergo mental health screenings before deploying to war.