Tester chairs VA Committee field hearing in Great Falls

Senators Baucus, Salazar also hear testimony on health care for rural vets

(GREAT FALLS, Mont.) – Senator Jon Tester today chaired a field hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in Great Falls in response to growing concerns about access to quality health care for thousands of veterans who live across rural Montana.

Montana Senator Max Baucus and Senator Ken Salazar, D-Colo., joined Tester for the two-hour meeting at the Great Falls College of Technology.  Dozens of veterans packed into the hearing room at the Great Falls College of Technology to hear testimony from 13 witnesses.

Witnesses included veterans from across Montana and government leaders, including VA Director of Policy Analysis Richard Harman and William Feeley, the VA's Deputy Undersecretary for Health for Operations and Management.

"I hope that folks from the VA will take note of the witnesses' testimony today, and take note of just how many people have come out to this hearing," said Tester, who serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  "The number of people in this room who have given up their Saturday afternoon should show the VA clearly that veterans in Montana expect and deserve the same quality and availability of care that a veteran in Los Angeles, Seattle or New   York City might be able to get."

Tester moved legislation through the VA Committee raising the VA's health care travel reimbursement rate for disabled vets from 11-cents to 28 ½-cents per mile.

Tester also sponsored with Salazar the bipartisan Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, which:

  • Requires     the VA to work with rural hospitals and clinics, the Indian Health Service     and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in developing new     veterans' health care projects
  • Identifies     VA medical centers that research ways to improve rural health care
  • Requires     the VA to develop new strategies to improve rural health care
  • Creates     the VetsRide program, which provides grants of up to $50,000 to     organizations that help disabled vets travel to medical centers

"Our veterans laid their lives on the line to protect the freedoms we enjoy every day as Montanans and Americans and it's our job to make sure they have the access to the services they need and deserve," Baucus said. "Making sure our veterans and our brave military men and women have access to quality, affordable health care is one of my top priorities. They shouldn't have to travel long distances to see the doctors they need to or to get other care and assistance. It's not right that veterans in rural areas have to travel farther than folks in more urban areas. That's why I'm pleased that Jon is holding this hearing today. It's important and I'm proud to work together with him."

"Like Montana, a large proportion of Colorado's veterans live in rural areas, where high mountain passes and icy roads often stand between veterans and the high quality of VA health care that they deserve," said Salazar, a former member of the VA Committee.  "We need to do better for our rural veterans by improving access to health care and by building on our efforts from last year that created the Office of Rural Health within the VA.  I commend my colleagues for championing this cause and I look forward to our continued work together on behalf of all of America's veterans."

The veterans who attended today's hearing also had an opportunity to provide their own testimony.  Tester said he will take all comments and ideas gathered today back to the VA Committee in Washington.