By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Legislation introduced by Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines would help the VA Community Outpatient Clinic in Missoula lease more space and expand its facility while the agency moves forward with plans to build a larger clinic.

On Wednesday, Tester and Daines joined a bipartisan team of senators in introducing the legislation, which addresses 24 VA medical facilities in 15 states.

“There's controversy on how the Congressional Budget Office scores these leases, but this bill has bipartisan support all across the country,” Tester spokesperson Marnee Banks said. “This legislation is part of a bigger authorization of leases.”

The bill, Providing Veterans Overdue Care Act, will authorize the VA to lease additional space in Missoula to expand the current clinic, located at 2687 Palmer Street.

The 24-percent expansion will enable the VA to serve more patients, provide more privacy to veterans seeking care, and ensure that doctors, nurses and medical personnel have the space they need to effectively do their jobs.

“I’ve toured the crowded facility in Missoula and heard from area veterans and medical providers that we need an expanded clinic,” said Tester, D-Montana. “This bill will support veterans in western Montana by increasing their access to health care.”

The effort to expand the local clinic isn't new. Area veterans have been waiting for more than two years for Congress to approve the lease. Banks said Congress hasn't authorized any major VA medical leases in several years due a change in how the CGO scores the leases.

Daines also joined several senators from both parties in introducing the legislation, including Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado.

“Montana’s veterans could greatly benefit from having additional access to health care closer to home,” Daines said. “Having an expanded clinic will go a long way towards providing increased access to care more quickly for our veterans."

Efforts to expand the local clinic date back to at least February 2014, when Tester began urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to address the issue. A subtle expansion took place in 2015, though the clinic remains undersized.

More recently, the General Services Administration began studying the feasibility of converting the vacant Federal Building in downtown Missoula into a new outpatient clinic, though that effort proved unfeasible due to costs.

Banks said the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs is currently faced with a confirmation hearing for the new VA secretary and will likely follow by addressing the VA Choice Program. It's unknown when the committee would consider the act addressing VA leases and approve the clinic expansion.

“We'll see what the chairman's top priorities are,” Banks said.

She said the delay in congressional authorization is partially due to a recent change in the way the CBO scores these leases.

Prior to 2012, Banks said, major medical facility leases were scored on an annual basis, But that year, the CBO determined that budget authority for these leases, many of which cover a 20-year period, should be recorded up front when the leases are initiated and the acquisition occurs, not when the debt is repaid.

“Since 2012, Congress has not, through a regular process, authorized any major VA medical facility leases, hampering the ability of the department to provide much-needed health care and services to veterans around the country,” Banks said.

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