January 22, 2008 – Less than a week after holding a listening session with veterans at the VA Hospital at Fort Harrison, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced that the VA’s top leader will visit the state as early as next month.
On Tuesday, Tester said Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake will tour the state to observe firsthand the challenges of providing health care to veterans in rural and frontier parts of the country.
After a Tuesday meeting, Tester said Peake will also relocate and expand the VA clinic in Billings from 10,000 to 16,000 square feet. The new location has yet to be determined.
“It was a good meeting that will ultimately help a lot of veterans and their families here in Montana,” Tester said. “Secretary Peake and I checked politics at the door and worked together to do what’s right for the folks who served our country.”
Tester said Peake’s approval of the new clinic in Billings, the state’s largest city, brings the project one step closer to reality. Due the size of the new clinic, Tester said, Congress must give final approval, which is expected in 30 days.
Tester and Peake spoke about the concerns the senator has heard over the past year during listening sessions held around the state. Tester has held 12 such sessions, the last taking place at Fort Harrison last week.
There, Tester heard requests from improved dental care to an expanded vet-to-vet program. Improved record keeping was an issue raised by several in attendance, along with better post-deployment care.
With nearly 80 people in attendance, some praised the Montana VA, saying it provided superior care to that received at other facilities. Others, however, criticized the VA for shortcomings they called an affront to veterans.
“I told Secretary Peake what I’m hearing in Montana,” Tester said. “I told him about the issues we need to put on the front burner. He listened and he’s taking action.”
Thousands of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental-health issues are encountering an overburdened VA system, which is scrambling to meet the rising demand.
Tester, who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee, has said at various points over his first year in office that even more veterans are likely to turn to the VA for help as the war in Iraq and action in Afghanistan rolls on.
“Meeting with Secretary Peake was a good chance to take what I’ve heard over the last couple of weeks and bring it to the highest level of the VA,” Tester said.