Tester tells VA to ‘Get the ball rolling’ on rural health care for vets

Senator presses agency to use colleges to place health care providers in rural Montana

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Senator Jon Tester turned up the heat on the VA today, urging the agency to "get the ball rolling" and expand partnerships with colleges and universities to find, recruit and retain health care providers for veterans who live in highly rural states like Montana.

Tester and his colleagues on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing this morning to discuss the national shortage of medical professionals, especially in rural areas.  The problem is worse for the VA, which struggles to competitively recruit qualified health care providers.

About 35,000 of Montana's nearly 110,000 veterans live in "highly rural" Montana.  Many have to leave the state or drive long distances to get the health care they were promised.

During this morning's hearing, Tester pressed the director of the VA's Retention and Recruitment Office to develop better relationships with universities and colleges to rotate health care students into rural communities for their training.

Students who train in rural communities are more likely to return once they finish their educations, Tester said.  He noted that Miles Community College in Miles City, Helena's Carroll College, and the Salish Kootenai College in Pablo are all expanding or starting nursing programs, and could further develop ties to the VA.  

"There is a critical shortage of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in Montana and other rural parts of this country," Tester said.  "The VA has to get the ball rolling to seize every opportunity in highly rural areas where we need to fill jobs."

Tester also asked the about the incentives and pay the VA offers to attract health care providers such as nurses, dentists and physicians to rural America.  President Bush's proposed budget for the VA does not contain additional money for incentives like signing bonuses for health care professionals.

"We do not say to our veterans, 'You can have good health care, but you have to promise to live in an urban area,'" Tester said.  "We make this promise to all veterans, regardless of where they live."