Montanan testifies before Tester’s Senate veterans panel

Cascade man shares ideas for rural, Priority 8 veterans

(BIG SANDY, Mont.) – Senator Jon Tester and his colleagues on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee this week heard ideas from a Montana health care expert on how to improve health care for veterans in rural America.

Tester invited James Ahrens of Craig to testify to the panel on issues ranging from Priority 8 veterans to the relationship between the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Services.  Ahrens is one of two Montanans appointed by Tester and Senator Max Baucus to serve on the national Veterans Rural Health Advisory Committee.  Ahrens chairs the Committee.

“Veterans in Montana expect you to check your party politics at the door and focus on doing what’s right,” said Tester, who requested and chaired the Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing.  “And we owe them no less.  Make no mistake about it: there’s always room for improvement.  And that’s what this hearing is all about.”

Tester asked Ahrens about the possibility of re-enrolling Priority 8 veterans back into the VA system.  Priority 8 describes veterans who, under a Bush Administration rule change, have incomes deemed too high to qualify for VA enrollment.  Currently that income limit in Montana is approximately $33,000.  Ahrens agreed that those veterans should be re-enrolled in the VA.

Ahrens was also questioned on how to improve collaboration between the VA and the Indian Health Service.

“I think it has to start at the top,” Ahrens said.  “You have to have the head of the Indian Health Service and the head of the VA make it a priority.  And in my opinion, over the years, it hasn’t been that priority.” 

Ahrens is the former CEO of the Montana Hospital Association.

Tester’s landmark Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, was signed into law on May 5.  That bill, which improves health care for all veterans in Montana and across rural America, was supported by several national veterans’ organizations, including: The Wounded Warrior Project, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Disabled Veterans of America.

Video of this week’s hearing is available HERE.