Sen. Jon Tester meets with national VA leadership

Sen. Jon Tester meets with national VA leadership at Fort Harrison VA Medical Center Thursday.

During a visit to Helena Thursday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester touted new legislation that will give qualifying veterans more flexibility to obtain care through private doctors paid for by the Veterans Administration. 

The new Mission Act, which took effect Thursday, drastically changes how veterans' health care is managed throughout the United States. Passed on June 6, 2018, the Act streamlines how the VA pays for outside care. 

Under the new law, any vet asked to drive more than 30 minutes or wait more than 20 days for an appointment is allowed to see a private health care provider instead. Forty percent of veterans are eligible for community care.

In rural states like Montana, that could drastically cut down on long commutes to VA facilities.

"This is the biggest change in veteran health care in a generation," Tester said at the gates of Fort Harrison's VA Thursday morning. 

"I think that this can be a real win for veterans in the country in the ability to get more timely health care, better quality health care," Tester said.

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The VA has hosted town halls in Helena, Great Falls, Billings and Missoula to help educate veterans about the major changes. Veterans have to get approval from the VA before they can get community care, and the Act will improve information sharing with those providers. 

The expansion of coverage will not apply to every private care provider in the state. The VA needs to have agreements with doctors and clinics, but Tester said the list of community providers in Montana is "long."

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VA congressional liaison Christina Lundstrom said the community providers would start to show up on the VA website in the coming days. "They're uploading providers now," Lundstrom said. 

"I think veterans are looking forward to it," Tester said. "They want something that will work. They were sick of the Choice Act ... that's why we gave the VA a year to implement this. I do think there will be some real opportunities for improved health care with the Mission Act and people are looking forward to it."

Some have brought up concerns about privatization, as the Trump administration has pushed to expand the ability of private groups to provide health care to veterans once only served by the VA. 

"The bottom line is, the work we tried to do with the Mission Act is make sure veterans had care, quality care, in a timely manner," Tester said. "If we get it implemented correctly that's what's going to happen."

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