Tester’s bill gains steam as veterans praise measure to improve rural health care

Senator calls on Committee to pass legislation to expand health care, name Havre VA clinic

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – National veterans’ organizations today backed Senator Jon Tester’s legislation to improve access to health care for veterans in rural America at a hearing in the U.S. Senate.

Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced his Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act in March and today called on this key committee to pass it as soon as next month.

The bill expands health care and medical services for all veterans who live in rural America.  Tester noted that all veterans who live in Montana—more than 100,000—are considered rural veterans.

Both the Disabled Veterans of America (DAV) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America praised Tester’s legislation during today’s hearing.

“The DAV appreciates Senator Tester’s leadership in improving health care for veterans residing in rural areas,” said Adrian Atizado, assistant legislative director of the DAV, in written testimony for the Veterans’ Affairs Committee today.

Tester’s legislation would improve health care for rural veterans by:

  • Locking in the current travel reimbursement rate for disabled veterans who travel for health care at 41.5 cents per mile. (Over the past two years, Tester got the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] to raise the rate to 41.5 cents per mile from 11 cents per mile).
  • Authorizing the VA to award grants to service groups that transport veterans to their medical appointments. 
  • Directing the VA to establish Indian Health Coordinators in areas with a high Native American veterans population to improve the care given to Native veterans. 
  • Authorizing  the VA to work with community mental health centers to provide mental health services to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in areas where the VA is unable to provide mental health care.
  • Directing the VA to establish as many as five centers of excellence for rural health research.  The centers will research how best to provide health care to rural veterans.

Blake Ortner of Paralyzed Veterans of America also testified in favor of Tester’s Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act today.

“The most important provision may be to develop and implement innovative clinical activities and systems of care for veterans in rural areas,” Ortner said.

“Without question, rural veterans have greater transportation difficulties reaching health care providers,” Tester said.  “They often travel great distances to reach a doctor or hospital.  Sometimes they don’t go at all, and that is unacceptable.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Enlisted Association of National Guardsmen of the United States (EANGUS) and the Retired Enlisted Association have also expressed support for Tester’s bill.

During today’s hearing, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee also heard Tester’s legislation to name the new VA outpatient clinic in Havre after Montana veteran Merril Lundman.  Lundman, who passed away in late 2007, spent his final years advocating a new VA in Havre. 

Tester’s Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act is S. 658.