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Interview With Sen. Jon Tester

Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Sen. Jon Tester is a third-generation Montana farmer, a proud grandfather, and a former schoolteacher who has deep roots in defending veterans in Montana and across America.

Tester and his wife, Sharla, still farm the same land near Big Sandy that was homesteaded by his grandparents in 1912.

As a teenager, Tester played Taps at many funeral services for World War II veterans. These ceremonies left a deep impression on him – an impression that motivates his work today as the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. 

Tester’s first bill to pass in the Senate successfully raised the veterans’ mileage reimbursement rate for the first time in decades. 

Since then, he has worked with Republicans, Democrats, secretaries, and presidents from both political parties to pass meaningful legislation that upholds the nation’s commitment to veterans.

Just this year, Tester has been working closely with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin, M.D., and President Donald Trump to pass five major veterans bills that reform the Choice Program, expand GI Bill benefits to more veterans, and fix the outdated appeals process.

Tester continues his work today by holding public listening sessions with veterans so he can take their ideas with him back to the Senate and make meaningful change on the ground in Montana.

Veterans Affairs & Military Medicine Outlook: The Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act – an extension of the Veterans Choice Program that was set to expire – was signed into law April 19. What are some of the changes that were included? How will these changes affect veteran patients and their caregivers?

Sen. Jon Tester: The Choice Program was designed with the best intentions – to speed up access to care for veterans. For many veterans in Montana and across the nation, it has done the opposite. So I worked closely with Republicans and Democrats to pass this legislation that will begin to fix the Choice Program. Our law will make sure that veterans aren’t bearing the brunt of costs and providers are getting paid in a more timely manner for caring for veterans. It makes the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] the primary payer under the Choice Program, which cuts red tape and reduces out-of-pocket expenses for veterans.

 

Your home state, a rural state, is reported to have one of the nation’s largest veteran populations per capita. How does the Improvement Act help veterans in rural communities?

Montana veterans have never shied away from serving their nation when they [are needed] most. And after they serve, many of them want to go back to the rural communities where they grew up. Rural veterans face unique challenges to accessing VA health care. Rural veterans are more likely to qualify for the Choice Program because of their distance to VA facilities, so this law will help those that rely on getting care closer to home by cutting red tape and out-of-pocket costs.

“Whenever I meet with VA staff in Montana, I’m just amazed at their passion and dedication they have for working for veterans.”

 

Senate Bill 1963, better known as the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, was signed into law in May 2010. Veterans eligible for the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers are those who were injured on or after 9/11. But veterans from the Vietnam and Gulf wars aren’t covered. What are your thoughts on this?

Caregivers sacrifice their own physical, emotional, and financial well-being to care for veterans. And veterans who have a dedicated caregiver can recover faster and can stay in the comfort of their own home. Every veteran who is wounded in the line of duty should be eligible for these support services, which provide their caregivers with training, health care, and other services. They often make the difference between a veteran staying at home and living in a nursing home, not to mention that caregiver benefits are cheaper than nursing home care, which is a good stewardship of taxpayer dollars. I reintroduced legislation that will expand these caregiver support services to veterans of all eras. I am hopeful that momentum is building around this effort and that we can get something done for these folks that can’t receive these benefits.

Sen. Jon Tester

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

 

There have been complaints that rules for the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers seem arbitrary and people were being dropped. The VA has stopped dropping caregivers. Could you talk about this?

It’s unacceptable that any veteran and their caregiver would get dropped from this program and without any notice. I immediately called on VA Secretary David Shulkin to investigate why folks were being dropped. And while we prevented any other veterans getting dropped, there were still troubling discrepancies between state programs and questions about the future of the program. The VA conducted a full-scale investigation and I’m hopeful that they will keep my recommendations to fully maintain the program in mind.

 

What are some of the differences between the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act and the Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act?

The fundamental difference is that the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act focused on building a program for seriously disabled veterans. The Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act is a law that helped prevent veterans who rely on the Choice Program from being cut off from their care. The Choice Program was slated to run out of funds sooner than expected, and we passed bipartisan legislation to make sure veterans can continue to access health care and to make the program work better for them. That allows us to keep veterans seeing their doctors while we craft the future of community care – which should be an integrated network of VA and community care providers, with the VA serving as the coordinator and primary provider of care and any gaps in that care filled by the private sector.

 

You introduced S.833, the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act. In what ways would this legislation help survivors of military sexual trauma?

The fact that anyone in uniform has to deal with sexual assault or harassment while serving our country is unacceptable. We owe it to every woman and man affected by these awful acts to ensure they have access to the best possible care and the benefits they need. So my bipartisan bill will help make sure that the VA is providing the appropriate benefits and care to survivors of military sexual trauma. And since we live in the 21st century, our bill makes sure that veterans and service members who experience online sexual harassment are getting the appropriate care they need.

Bill signing

President Donald Trump signs the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act in the East Room of the White House on June 23, 2017. Sen. Jon Tester helped to craft the legislation. White House photo

 

Another piece of legislation you helped craft is the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which was signed into law on June 23. It will give Shulkin more latitude to discipline bad employees. Do you think this law goes far enough to hold accountable poorly performing employees throughout the VA health system? If not, what further steps would you support to ensure veteran patients are treated in a timely manner and with respect and dignity?

Most VA employees are hardworking men and women who provide excellent services to veterans. But when there’s a bad apple at the VA, it spoils the whole bunch. The VA needs the authority to get rid of those employees, and we gave VA that authority without sacrificing employees’ due process rights. But true accountability is about more than just discipline. We also need to improve training for managers and incentivize them to address problem behavior before a veteran’s dignity or care is at stake. So, our bill also instills a new culture of accountability at the VA by improving training and strengthening its leadership.

If you could identify one area where you feel health care delivery and/or treatment could be improved for veteran patients, what might it be?

The Choice Program still needs work, which is why I’m working with Senate [Committee on] Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson to streamline the community care programs and ensure that when veterans can’t access the VA, the transition to the private sector is seamless.

 

What are some of things that have impressed you the most about the VA?

Whenever I meet with VA staff in Montana, I’m just amazed at their passion and dedication they have for working for veterans. Many VA employees are veterans themselves, and that creates the unique environment where you have veterans serving veterans. I think that creates a culture of comfort and understanding that is really important for veterans to have after they have put their lives on the line serving our country.

 

In satisfaction surveys, veterans have consistently given high ratings to the VA for out-performing private-sector health care. Why do you think this is?

I hear the exact same thing from Montana veterans every day. Medical staff and employees at the VA are some of the hardest-working folks around. Most of the VA’s staff are dedicated to serving veterans and the veterans know and feel that dedication when they go to the VA. That’s why veterans are there. And that’s also why instead of using VA resources to send veterans to the private sector, we need to make sure that VA facilities have all the resources they need to serve every veteran who walks in the door.