SENATE VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE FIELD HEARING TESTIMONY
Provided By: Joe Foster, Administrator - Montana Veterans Affairs Division
Date/Location: Great Falls, Montana / July 21, 2007
Senator Tester, Senator Baucus and Senator Salazar, thank you for investing your valuable time to being with us in Montana; and asking me to participate in this hearing, which is to focus on veteran health care and services in rural areas.
While the Montana Veterans Affairs Division does not provide health services to veterans, we are instrumental in the process by which all our veterans - particularly those in Montana's rural areas - attain federal VA health services and benefits. We currently operate 10 veterans service offices located throughout the state; and it is through these offices that the great majority of Montana's veterans attain federal VA disability compensation, pension and burial benefits; and have the opportunity to enroll into the VA-Montana Healthcare System - either by completing the VA Form 10-10 EZ or through the process of being rated with some level of service-connected disability.
Outside of a community-based veterans service office in Hamilton, my agency's service offices are the only ones located outside of the Fort Harrison VA Center near Helena - and it is through these State of Montana offices that the great majority of our veterans attain the benefits to which they are entitled. In fact, within two months we will be establishing our 11th veterans service office - which will be located in Wolf Point, and its outreach area will include the northeastern corner of the state.
According to the 2000 census, Montana has the third lowest population density in the nation - with 46% living in what is officially termed "Rural Area." As it happens, Montana also has the nation's second-highest veteran per capita population. So, obviously, we have veterans outreach service challenges in regards to the provision of veteran health and benefits access and services. But before I make my lone recommendation which would assist the Montana Veterans Affairs Division provide greater services to its rural veterans, I will share three statistics with you that reflect how good a job the VA-Montana Healthcare System, the VA-Montana's veterans benefits Regional Office, the state's veterans service organizations, and the Montana Veterans Affairs Division does in the outreach of its services to our veterans - both rural and non-rural. These statistics are part of an analysis I conducted in 2005 and presented to the Montana Legislature's State Administration and Veterans Affairs Interim Committee, and each directly reflects how well VA health and benefit services are provided in our extremely rural state.
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• Power of Attorney representation - This is a document a veteran signs which authorizes my division or one of the national veterans service organizations to represent him or her in developing a disability compensation claim and serving as that veteran's advocate throughout the claims development, rating and - as necessary - appeals process. Essentially it is the authorizing document whereby a veteran attains professional veterans benefits services. In 2004, 76.3% of Montana's veterans had power of attorney representation. This percentage was 2nd highest nationally, and #1 of the 11 Western states.
To summarize, despite the challenges inherent in such a large and rural state, Montana has a veterans services program that works very well and continues to improve, and - in fact - is a national leader and model to be emulated. With continued support from Congress, and from Montana's governor and legislature, we will continue to improve - which takes me to my lone recommendation:
Various bills have been introduced in Congress intended to provide federal grants to the states for rural veterans service outreach programs. This kind of financial support is needed and would be appreciated. I believe that the grants should be made available strictly at the state organizational level and at the Tribal Nation level, and the grant's usage should be left entirely up to the state or Tribal Nation; no strings attached - just performance measures.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak, and thank you, Sen. Tester, for bringing this hearing to Montana.
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