Senator Jon Tester's roadmap to increase access to mental health care across Montana and rural America will soon be making a difference for veterans.
Tester in May called for the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services to collaborate more effectively and to increase their efforts to contract with local health providers to enhance rural veterans' access to quality mental health services. A new directive announced today requires the departments to follow Tester's recommendations and establish pilot sites across the country that will improve care by working more closely with community health centers and local health facilities.
"Rural veterans earned the same level of care as veterans from any other part of the country," said Tester, Montana's only member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "I'm pleased that the VA will now work more closely with local health providers to make sure rural veterans get the health care that they need and that they earned."
Tester will urge the VA and Health and Human Services to include Montana among the pilots sites that allow for closer partnerships between the departments and private mental health care providers.
The directive also requires the departments to plan a rural mental health recruitment drive to boost the number of mental health providers in rural areas -- something Tester has long championed to help Montana veterans.
The VA will also be required to hire and train 800 new peer-to-peer counselors and use all available means to meet its goal of hiring 1,600 new mental health professionals by next June.
Tester originally called for this roadmap in May after chairing a Veterans' Affairs Committee field hearing in Billings. In it, he specifically highlighted the need to "recruit and retain" health professionals in rural America and noted that staffing shortfalls force veterans to travel farther, pay more, and wait longer for needed care.
Montana is home to more than 103,000 veterans, the second largest veterans' population per capita in the nation.
Tester, who spent Friday touring the VA's Great Falls Community Based Outpatient Clinic and presenting lost medals to a local veteran, also recently supported Montana's rural veterans by introducing and securing passage of two bipartisan provisions that will improve access to care for veterans. Tester's provisions reimburse veterans travelling to Vet Centers from highly rural areas and ensure that veterans using telehealth facilities are not required to make copayments.