Tester asks VA secretary to increase capacity, avoid privatization

Sen. Jon Tester listens to veterans’ concerns in Missoula at a session held in late May. Tester is asking VA Secretary David Shulkin to increase capacity and ensure that veterans experience a seamless process when seeking treatment in the private sector. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Two weeks removed from a listening tour that took him to Missoula and Billings, Sen. Jon Tester on Thursday called on VA Secretary David Shulkin to increase capacity at the VA and ensure that veterans experience a seamless process when seeking treatment in the private sector.

Tester’s comments come on the heals of a Montana listening tour in late May, where he met with veterans to hear their concerns over the CHOICE program and other VA issues.

“The VA is just as responsible when a veteran has a bad experience at their local civilian medical facility as they are if that veteran was at a VA hospital,” said Tester, who is a ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We can’t let the VA lose oversight of the quality of care that our veterans receive, regardless of where it is.”

The CHOICE program was adopted by Congress in 2014 to cover gaps within the VA Health Care System. Among them, it enabled veterans who were unable to get an appointment within 30 days to receive care from a provider outside the VA system.

It also enabled veterans in rural states like Montana to seek treatment outside the VA if they live 40 or miles from the nearest VA medical facility.

With the CHOICE program set to expire later this year, Tester is asking the VA to continue to serve as the primary coordinator and provider of veterans’ care, with an integrated network of community care providers ready to fill in the gaps.

Tester said the proposal is widely supported by veterans and advocates, though some members of Congress are pushing to privatize the VA system.

“Montana veterans aren’t clamoring for private sector care,” said Tester. “There is an important role for community care, but veterans’ health care is far too important to risk outsourcing it entirely to private providers, especially when we don’t know if they can absorb additional patients or provide specialized care that veterans often need.”