Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester voted against a committee-approved appropriations bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it underfunded the VA by $800 million at a time when the agency’s services are in peak demand.
On Wednesday in City Council Chambers, flanked by Montana Adjutant General Matthew Quinn and two Missoula veterans, Tester lauded the passage of a new appropriations bill, which added $1.9 billion to the version considered in May.
“When that same bill came out of committee back in May, it was well short of what our veterans needed,” said Tester, D-Mont. “That’s because some folks in Congress still don’t understand that if we’re going to be asking the VA to do more, we need to make sure it has the resources it needs.”
Tester offered the bill on the Senate floor before it went on to win unanimous support. The legislation improves treatment for hepatitis C, bolsters rural health care, and enhances the VA’s ability to recruit and retain doctors and nurses.
The bill also provides better care for Vietnam veterans reaching retirement age while treating the physical and mental ailments of younger vets returning home after 15 years of war in the Middle East.
“These are investments the VA desperately needs in order to get itself righted, and to get itself back so we can get the job done,” Tester said. “We need to make sure the VA is living up to its promises.”
But despite passage of the appropriations bill, Tester said, challenges remain. Access to health care continues to be a problem in rural areas, including Montana, as do patient wait times.
A report released by Tester on Wednesday notes the patient wait times in several Montana regions. Helena scored the worst, with veterans waiting on average 40.4 days for primary care. Butte followed at 14.3, along with Missoula at 13.6.
Billings scored among the best for primary care, with patients waiting just 1.5 days.
“At a time when demand is increasing, we know that recruiting medical professionals is a challenge,” Tester said. “We’ve made advancements with community based outpatient clinics around the state, but getting those outpatient clinics staffed has been a problem.”
To address the problem, Tester has introduced a bill to allow for more medical residencies in rural states. The legislation, along with dozens of other proposed bills aimed at VA issues – including employment and homelessness – has yet to pass.
“If we’re able to do that and get that bill passed, then I think that docs who do residencies here are more inclined to stay here,” Tester said. “The bottom line is that these are solutions that Congress needs to work on.”
Despite the lingering challenges, Tester noted recent improvements to the VA, including the massive reform bill that followed the 2013 VA scandal, one that led to the resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Funding for the VA used to be discretionary, but now it’s mandatory, Tester noted. The VA has also implemented tele-medicine to treat rural veterans, built new outpatient clinics in rural areas, and implemented the Choice Act.
“It was a rocky rollout for the Choice Act, and there are still tweaks that need to be made, but it’s better than where it was, though we need to keep moving the ball forward,” Tester said. “The biggest issue the VA has right now is recruitment.”