Monday, May 27, 2024

At Hearing on Rural Veterans Health Care, Tester Raises Alarms about VA Mental Health Care Hiring – Senator Jon Tester

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Tester presses VA to do better at meeting the needs of rural veterans, from improving their transportation benefits to hiring more mental health care providers in rural areas

During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing yesterday on improving rural veterans’ access to health care, Chairman Jon Tester pressed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials to ensure the Department continues to hire mental health providers in rural areas amid VA’s decision to implement a strategic hiring pause at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

“Mental health is a big issue, and it’s something we hear about a lot on this Committee. It’s something that is a problem in Montana,” said Tester. “…What [is VA] doing about getting providers in rural areas? I’m talking about mental health providers. And specifically, what guidance have you received from VACO regarding the recruitment and retention of mental health staff in 2024?”

While VA officials said they had only received guidance that mental health positions would be exempt from VHA’s strategic hiring pause, Tester raised alarms given unclear direction from VA leadership to both Congress and VA providers in the field and reports of reductions in mental health positions in facilities across the country.

Tester continued to press the VA officials, “What would your advice to the VA be, if they came down with [a] directive saying we’re going to freeze all hiring, including mental health?”

“I think that would be a terrible idea,” said Dr. Peter Kaboli, the Executive Director of VA’s Office of Rural Health. “My advice would be to rethink it pretty quickly.”

Underscoring the need to continue hiring mental health providers in Montana and rural America to ensure VA is meeting the needs of veterans, Tester concluded his line of questioning: “I just want to say this…You need to ensure VA is doing what you guys are saying. Because quite frankly, mental health continues to be a crisis in this country, both in the civilian world and especially in the veteran world. And it is incumbent on us to make sure that we have the providers there, we have the help there, and we have what the veteran needs— especially if they’re in crisis.”

During the hearing’s second panel, Tester questioned Chauncey Parker, a Montanan and the Executive Director of the Great Plains Veterans Service Center in North Central Montana on Montana veterans’ experience accessing VA transportation services.

Tester also questioned Jon Retzer, the Assistant National Legislative Director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), on challenges DAV faces in recruiting volunteer drivers to drive rural veterans to and from their VA health care appointments. Retzer highlighted that the big challenge in getting and keeping volunteerdrivers is the vetting process that can take over a year, which presents additional red tape for the volunteer drivers living in rural areas.

Tester highlighted that he has heard from Montana veterans facing similar challenges, saying: “I’ve had my local DAV say they’ve got people they can get driving, but by the time they jump through all the hoops they’ve run out of gas. I think that’s really important because we need to make sure our veterans are safe…[But] the bottom line is this could be done much quicker and more efficiently, and we need to keep that in mind because these folks are volunteers.”

Continuing his push to improve rural veterans’ access to the health care they earned, Tester introduced his bipartisan Road to Access Act to improve VA’s beneficiary travel program, which provides mileage reimbursement to certain veterans to cover the costs for traveling to and from their health care appointments. He also introduced the bipartisan VA Emergency Transportation Access Act to protect veterans in Montana and rural America’s access to life-saving special mode transportation, including ground and air ambulances.

Tester also championed multiple rural-focused workforce recruitment and retention provisions as part of his PACT Act, to ensure VA expanded health care access and outreach for rural communities and Native veterans. During the hearing, VA officials highlighted that recruitment and retention authorities from thePACT Act have been instrumental in increasing VA’s rural provider workforce, including mental health providers.

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