Tester pushes Montana priorities at first meeting of veterans’ conference committee

Senator: ‘Veterans demanding better access, more accountability from VA’

(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester, tapped last week to serve on the Congressional committee hammering out a VA reform compromise bill, fought for Montana veterans’ priorities today at the panel’s first meeting.

“Veterans in Montana are telling me loud and clear that they want Congress to take strong steps to improve access to care and honor our commitments to those who served,” Tester said. “That means our final bill must include new resources to hire more doctors and nurses, rebuild veterans’ trust by increasing transparency and accountability and support better access for rural veterans.”

The Congressional committee, known as a conference committee, is charged with ironing out differences between the Senate’s and House of Representatives’ VA reform bills. The committee includes leading members of both the Senate and House of Representatives, including Tester, current Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and House of Representatives Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).

Tester’s priorities include:

  • Expanding Project ARCH, a program that allows eligible rural veterans to receive care closer to home through a non-VA health care provider
  • Increasing the cap on student loan repayments for prospective employees so the VA can better compete for skilled medical personnel
  • Directing the VA to help address mental health care workforce shortages by employing more marriage and family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors
  • Re-authorizing the Veterans Transportation Service to help rural veterans get to VA health facilities
  • Requiring the VA to address issues that may be impeding the provision and expansion of telemedicine services to veterans

The Senate and House of Representatives each passed bills earlier this month to address the medical backlog, strengthen the VA and increase accountability at the department. The more comprehensive Senate bill gives the VA more authority to hire needed healthcare professionals, allows veterans to seek care from outside the VA, improves the VA scheduling system and requires the VA to publish wait time goals for every VA medical center. The Senate bill passed 93 – 3.

Speaking at today’s meeting, Tester told his colleagues that it is critical to get the VA reform bill right and warned against sending too many veterans to private health care professionals.

“We’ve got be careful not to make this an assembly line,” said Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Many of these folks have issues that private sector patients do not have. They need time. And I think that if we are running them in and out like cattle through a squeeze chute, we are going to create a big problem and we are not going to help the healthcare that veterans get.

“We need to continually analyze its effectiveness not only for the veterans, but also for the taxpayer,” Tester added. “There are no if, ands, or buts about that. If it costs more money and the treatment isn’t significantly better, we’ve got a problem.”

A major difference between the two bills is that the Senate version seeks to strengthen the VA by improving its ability to provide access to healthcare. For instance, the Senate bill authorizes the VA to hire more doctors and nurses, whereas the House version does not. Also, the Senate version provides a short appeals process for VA employees that have been terminated due to incompetence – protecting their due process rights, while the House version does not.

In addition to proposing his own legislative fixes, Tester launched a statewide listening tour this month to hear from Montana veterans about how to improve care at the VA. He held his first three sessions in Anaconda, Missoula and Kalispell.