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Helena IR: Veterans omnibus bill includes Tester's provisions

HELENA - Veterans in rural America came out winners late Thursday night when the U.S. Senate passed the final version of a bill crafted in part by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Senate Bill 1963, better known as the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, passed by unanimous consent Thursday and now goes to President Barack Obama for signature.

"It's a big step forward for Montana's veterans," Tester told the Independent Record Friday morning from his Big Sandy home. "A lot of things in this bill stem from a meeting that occurred during a listening session back in 2007."

Back then, Tester had just been sworn into office as Montana's junior senator when he began a state-wide listening tour with state veterans.

The concerns raised at those meetings ranged from the government's reimbursement of just 11 cents per mile for disabled veterans traveling to treatment, to the recruitment and retention of VA medical professionals in rural America.

The new legislation achieves both goals by permanently securing the travel reimbursement paid to disabled veterans at 41.5 cents per mile, while expanding the VA's authority to provide employment incentives in rural areas to help recruit and retain health care providers.

"All those things, literally, came from the ground and by working with individual vets," Tester said. "I'm very thankful those folks stepped up and were honest with me. It resulted in a bill that was built from the ground up."

The bill also creates a grant program for the Disabled American Veterans, which transports vets to VA facilities for treatment.

It will also expand the VA's telehealth program, along with its ability to collaborate with the Indian Health Services and providers of medical care in rural communities.

"Recruitment and retention of health care providers is always a big deal in rural America," Tester said. "Veterans who live in remote communities deserve to have access to good people who can treat them."

While Tester lauded the bill as being good for veterans in Montana, considered a rural state with one of the nation's largest veteran populations per capita, he admitted that work needs to be done in other areas important to the nation's vets.

Earlier this week, Tester criticized the VA for its handling of overpayments made to colleges and universities in the new 21st Century GI Bill.

That law went into effect last year, paying college tuition, living expenses and books for thousands of Montana vets who served on active duty since 2001.

But in some cases, the VA has inadvertently sent too much money to colleges to reimburse veterans' tuition. As a result, the VA is having the schools refund the students instead of returning the money back to the VA.

That has left some vets placed on "overpayment status" by the VA, making them responsible for a debt they are sometimes not even aware of.

Montana State University has received roughly $10,000 in GI Bill overpayments this semester, Tester said.

"We're going to continue to work on that kind of stuff and make sure the GI Bill works as intended," he said. "We'll be watching and working and continuing to make sure our fighting men and women get the benefits they deserve."

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