Tester Urges VA Secretary to ‘take a serious interest’ in Addressing Challenges Facing Montana Veterans, Following Visit This Week

Following VA Secretary Wilkie’s trip to Montana, Ranking Member presses the Department to better meet the needs of veterans and families during the COVID-19 crisis

U.S. Senator Jon Tester is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to “take a serious interest” in addressing longstanding issues to better support veterans and their families across Montana—especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Tester’s request follows VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s visit to the Treasure State earlier this week.

“On the heels of your recent trip to Montana, I respectfully request your plan to resolve various issues of access to care and benefits that are most pressing to Montana veterans and their families,” Tester, the Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, wrote to Secretary Wilkie. “And given your lack of direct engagement with Montana veterans during your trip, I would like to relay some of the firsthand accounts of the current challenges facing these folks so the Department of Veterans Affairs is better prepared to meet their needs. Particularly during this pandemic, it is vital that veterans feel their concerns are not only heard, but also addressed by VA. And while some of these issues preceded COVID-19, many have been aggravated by this global health crisis and need your immediate attention.”

As the only member of the Montana delegation to serve on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester has been a longtime champion for securing benefits and care for veterans and their families. In his letter, Tester outlined the following six areas in need of “immediate attention” from VA to better meet the needs of Montanans who served:

  • Unreasonable Wait Times for VA and Community Care for Veterans- Wait times for VA care and community care facilitated through the Montana VA Health Care System continue to be a chief concern among veterans across the state. Tester is pushing VA to address these exceedingly long wait times, as well as the unacceptable wait times for inpatient treatment for veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder.
  • Staffing- According to the July 2020 VA Montana clinical vacancy report, the issue of long-term, unfilled HUD-VASH staffing vacancies remains a consistent problem that has gone largely unaddressed. These vouchers are especially vital during this pandemic as they provide socially-distant and quarantine-ready housing for a population particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Tester is urging VA to improve HUD-VASH caseworker hiring in Montana, and fill long-standing vacancies throughout the Department.
  • Growing Claims Backlog- The Department recently eliminated the 48-hour review rule and removed Disability Benefits Questionnaires from its website despite protests from veterans, Veteran Service Organizations, and Congress, greatly reducing the voice veterans and their representatives have before a final decision is rendered on a claim. Tester is doubling down on his effort for VA to account for the errors in claims that will arise as a result of limiting veterans and their advocates’ access to a pre-decisional claim and reduce the current pending claims backlog.
  • COVID-19 Response- As the winter months approach, it is vital that VA facilities in Montana and around the country are prepared to address not only COVID-19, but also the flu. Tester is pressing VA to outline its plan to provide critical Personal Protective Equipment to staff, patients, and veterans in Montana—in light of an already strained supply chain. Tester is also demanding information from VA on racial or ethnic health disparities in COVID-19, including death rates among veterans.
  • Lack of Transparency with Veterans and VSOs- VA continues to fall short in certain areas of transparency and clear communication to veterans, their families, and their advocates, especially over the last few months regarding issues that have brought a great deal of stress and uncertainty to Montana veterans in an already unsettling time. Tester is urging VA to increase communication with CHAMPVA beneficiaries regarding eligibility requirements and warnings regarding the potential loss of eligibility.
  • Toxic Exposure related to Agent Orange- More than forty percent of Montana’s veterans served in the Vietnam Era, many of them suffering from illnesses scientifically proven to be connected to toxic exposure during the war. Tester is continuing his longtime push for VA to add Bladder Cancer, Hypertension, and Parkinsonism to the Agent Orange presumptive list, providing earned benefits and care to this veteran population.

Read Tester’s full letter HERE.