Tester: Senate clears major improvements for Montana veterans

Senators approve lower deductible, better mental health care

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Montana's veterans will see more major improvements to their health care and benefits, if a bill that unanimously cleared the U.S. Senate last night becomes law.

With input from Montana veterans, Senator Jon Tester helped craft the Veterans Mental Health Improvements Act as a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

"There's a bunch of good things in here that bring us closer to making health care more accessible for all veterans—especially folks who live in rural America and Montana," Tester said. "This bill would cut out-of-pocket costs for veterans, it addresses mental health issues and it keeps veterans off the streets."

The Veterans Mental Health Improvements Act significantly cuts the deductible disabled veterans have to pay before qualifying for mileage reimbursement from the VA when they travel for health care.  Currently that deductible is $15.44 per round trip.  The new measure lowers the deductible to $6 per round trip.

The bill also makes permanent Tester's increase to the VA's mileage reimbursement rate for disabled veterans who travel for health care.  Earlier this year Tester successfully raised the rate from 11-cents to 28.5-cents per mile—the first increase since 1977.

Tester said the Veterans Mental Health Improvements Act will is full of other major improvements.  The measure:

  • Creates a pilot program to increase use of community health centers as mental    health service centers for veterans.  Tester cosponsored this provision. This program is modeled on Montana's successful partnership with community health centers.
  • Requires the VA to reimburse hospitals that provide emergency care to veterans who have service-connected disabilities. Tester has heard numerous stories    from veterans who have had to get health care quickly, but live too far from a VA facility.
  • Allows families of veterans with mental health disabilities to receive basic    mental health care, such as marital or family counseling.
  • Creates a new program to help low-income veterans avoid homelessness.

On Wednesday Tester took part in a Senate hearing to investigate reports of misdiagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and concerns that the VA is reacting too slowly to the growing needs of the nations' veterans.

"I'm very frustrated by the fact that whether I am asking about veteran suicides or the construction of new clinics, the answer from the middle layers of the VA's bureaucracy seems to be the same—it's not a big deal," Tester said.  "Let me be clear: it is a very big deal to me."

The Veterans Mental Health Improvements Act of 2008 is S. 2162.  The bill, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent Tuesday night, now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. The bill must then be signed into law by the President.

Tester vowed to continue to press for its enactment this year.