Tester introduces bill to reimburse veterans traveling to Vet Centers

VA ‘delighted’ to work with Tester on proposal

(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester today introduced legislation to offer the same travel reimbursement to eligible veterans who travel to Vet Centers as those who travel to VA health care clinics.

Montana’s four Vet Centers are VA facilities that focus on mental health care and readjustment counseling for combat veterans and their families.  But veterans who travel to Vet Centers currently have to pay travel costs out-of-pocket.

Tester—Montana’s only member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee—used a Senate hearing today to ask for the VA’s support for his bill, which would fix the VA’s definition of “Authorized Health Care Facilities” to include Vet Centers.

“My question is that when veterans go to a clinic, there’s a mileage reimbursement—when they go to a Vet Center, there’s not a mileage reimbursement,” said Tester, who successfully boosted the VA’s reimbursement for disabled veterans from 11 cents to 41.5 cents per mile.  “I’ve got a bill to remedy that situation because I don’t think it’s right.  What’s your perspective?”

“We’ve been looking at this issue,” said Robert A. Petzel, Under Secretary for Health.  Petzel agreed that the law should be fixed and told Tester the VA “would be delighted to work with you” on the legislation.

Tester is an outspoken advocate for expanding Vet Centers, having successfully pushed for new centers in Montana during face-to-face meetings with two U.S. Veterans’ Affairs Secretaries.  In 2009, the VA approved 28 new Vet Centers nationwide, including approval of Tester’s requests for new centers in Kalispell and Great Falls.  Billings and Missoula also have Vet Centers.

Services offered at Vet Centers include:

  • Individual, group, and family counseling
  • Bereavement counseling for families who experience an active duty death.
  • Screening & referrals for medical issues like traumatic brain injuries and depression
  • Assistance with claims applications and paperwork
  • Employment assessments and referrals

Tester today also thanked Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki for the VA’s approval of construction to double the size of the Billings VA Clinic.  Tester announced the expansion in February after successfully fighting for its inclusion in the VA budget.  Tester also noted that budget cuts proposed by the House of Representatives would jeopardize the planned expansion and the 70 new jobs it would bring to Billings.

Video of today’s hearing is available online, HERE.  A copy of Tester’s Vet Center Travel Reimbursement Bill is available on his website, HERE.

What are Montanans saying about Tester’s new legislation?
  • “The Vet Centers in Montana play a crucial role in the healing process of our veterans and their families.  For many veterans, the Vet Center is an initial point of contact for VA services, including mental health counseling.  Because of unemployment and high fuel costs, many veterans cannot afford the travel expense to a Vet Center.  At times, it's a choice between travel to a Vet Center for needed counseling services or groceries.  We owe our veterans and their families more than this choice.  Travel reimbursement to Vet Centers would make it possible for eligible veterans to receive much deserved and needed mental health care.  The American Legion will continue to advocate for the needs of our deserving veterans and appreciate continuing support from Senator Tester and his staff.”  –  Kelly Ackerman, Senior Veterans Service Officer, American Legion Department Service Officer, Fort Harrison 
  • “I firmly believe that travel reimbursement for veterans travelling to a Vet Center for help is crucial to the healing process.  Wounds received while serving in the military do not always bleed.  Mental wounds can be just as bad and, in fact, may require more professional care than a bullet wound.  We should give all veterans the help they need and deserve after their service in keeping this great country of ours free.  Remember freedom is not free.  Someone paid the price for us so let’s take care of them.”  –  Norman Paulson, Past Commander, Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 10, Billings
  • “Battle wounds don't always bleed; battle wounds are more than what we see behind a bandage.  Mental trauma, the kind known only to those in military uniform, is no less significant than a bullet wound.  The Vet Center exists as a quiet, separate place, away from the hurried mainstream, where veterans can go to seek needed treatment and counseling for wounds of war we can't see.  Vet Centers manage a necessary and vital need for veteran's health; we must not inhibit veterans from using Vet Centers simply because of the monetary cost to travel to a Center.”  –  Lieutenant Colonel Edward E. Saunders, U.S. Army (retired), Laurel