Senate passes Tester amendment funding vets’ mileage reimbursement

Measure sets aside $125 million for ‘long overdue change’

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The U.S. Senate today approved a measure by Montana Senator Jon Tester that sets aside $125 million to boost the travel reimbursement rate for disabled vets who have to drive long distances to receive VA health care.

Currently disabled vets receive only 11-cents per mile from the U.S. Veterans Administration—a rate that hasn't changed in 30 years.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has already passed separate legislation by Tester increasing the reimbursement rate by more than 250%—to 28.5-cents per mile.  That legislation is expected to be considered by the full Senate later this year.

Tester inserted an amendment in the Military Construction Appropriations Bill to set aside $125 million to fund the increased reimbursement rate.  Tester took the unusual step of appropriating money early in order to put pressure on lawmakers to pass what he considers a long overdue change to VA health care.

"America's vets have waited three decades for this increase.  It's about living up to our promise," Tester said.  "When our nation's vets answered the call of duty, this country made a promise to them to care for them while they served, and long after, no matter where they live."

Senators unanimously accepted Tester's amendment late last night.  The full spending bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate this morning by a vote of 92 to 1.

"This is a much needed, long overdue, and welcome action by the United States Senate," said Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a co-sponsor of the amendment. "For America's disabled veterans who must travel long distances for their medical appointments, particularly those who live rural areas, this shift in funding will allow for a mileage increase for travel reimbursement that will ease the financial burden, which has only worsened as a result of escalating gas prices.  Our nation's heroes should not be burdened with financial hardship simply because they must travel to receive the care they need."

The U.S. House has passed similar legislation to fund a 28.5-cent per mile reimbursement rate.  The Senate and the House will agree on a final version of the appropriations bill before sending it to President Bush to sign into law.

"This type of legislation is badly needed for so many veterans who need to get the health care they deserve but can't pay out of pocket to get where they need to go," said Dave McLean, Department Commander of the American Legion in Montana.  "This is more than a step in the right direction.  All vets can be proud of Senator Tester for fighting for them in Washington."

"It's good to see folks in D.C. working together to fulfill the promises we made to our men and women in uniform," Tester said.  "I'll be working closely with my colleagues to see this measure through to the end."

The Military Construction Appropriations Bill passed today also includes $7 million for a new Community Activity Center at Malmstrom Air Force Base, and $7.6 million for a new Army Reserve Center in Butte.