Tester Introduces Bipartisan Bill to Improve Rural Veterans’ Access to Travel Benefits

Senator’s bipartisan legislation will improve VA’s travel reimbursement program for Montana veterans to ensure they can access their hard-earned care and benefits

(U.S. Senate) – Continuing his push to protect rural veterans’ access to their earned care and benefits, U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, recently introduced bipartisan legislation to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) beneficiary travel program, which provides mileage reimbursement to certain veterans to cover the costs for traveling to and from their health care appointment.

“In Montana and rural America, travel benefits are essential to making sure veterans can access the care and services they earned—no matter where they live,” said Tester. “That’s why we introduced our bipartisan bill to make sure VA’s travel reimbursement program works better for rural veterans who rely on it to access life-saving medical appointments. This is an issue I have heard from veterans all across Montana, and I won’t stop pushing until VA fixes this critical program.”

The Senator’s Road to Access Act would require VA to automatically submit travel claims for eligible veterans receiving care at VA facilities who also meet any one of the following conditions: 

  • Has a 50% or higher service-connected disability rating;
  • Has a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990;
  • Lacks reasonable access to the new digital claims system, such as lacking a reliable telephone or internet service or devices; or
  • Relies on a caregiver or other source to submit their claims.

The legislation would also require VA to maintain a non-digital claims submission option for veterans, such as paper claims, to accept veterans’ travel claims up to 180 days after the date of eligible travel, compared to the current 30-day window, and to improve outreach to veterans about the reimbursement process.

In 2020, the VA Beneficiary Travel Office rolled out the new veterans’ beneficiary travel reimbursement program to streamline this service, reduce fraud, and expedite reimbursement by allowing veterans to submit claims online. However, many rural veterans eligible for this transportation benefit have had issues utilizing this new program because they do not have a computer, smartphone, or reliable internet access to submit beneficiary travel claims or access the training videos to learn how to use the service. Tester’s Road to Access Act will address these issues head on—ensuring qualifying veterans can use this program to access their hard-earned care and benefits.

Since he began hearing from Montana veterans about difficulties accessing the new system, Tester has been leading the charge pressing VA to make urgently needed improvements to this program. The Senator led a bipartisan call to VA Secretary Denis McDonough in 2021 to address issues within the new system. He also pushed to make the beneficiary travel system more user-friendly for veterans and staff in 2022, and called on VA to fix the program in June following a damning VA Office Inspector General report on the new program.

Tester also championed the bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs Information Technology Reform Act of 2021 last year to increase transparency, accountability, and improve performance of information technology systems and projects at VA, which includes the beneficiary travel reimbursement program.

“As a veteran living in rural Montana, I have been very frustrated with VA’s new travel reimbursement program because it requires a lot of advanced tech knowledge and equipment a lot of us veterans don’t have access to,” said Louis Eldridge, a veteran from Plains, Montana. “I should not have to meet with Beneficiary Travel staff in-person each time I want to access this benefit. I am grateful to Senator Tester for his leadership to fix this program to ensure Montana veterans like myself can get reimbursed for accessing the health care we earned and need.”

“The Road to Access Act introduced in the 118th United States Congress is a critical step in addressing excessive delays and inefficiencies in VA beneficiary travel reimbursements,” said Ginger B., a VA caregiver in Montana. “Veterans are currently subjected to a cumbersome electronic application process, lack of access to essential technology, inability to track claims progression, excessive application approval delays and unacceptable reimbursement times; often exceeding 180 days. This puts extreme financial burdens on our Veteran population and inhibits their ability to seek the VA medical care and services they have earned, and deserve, through their selfless service to this nation. I urge Congress to act by passing this legislation and providing our Veterans relief from navigating the current beneficiary travel application process, which is both inadequate and inefficient. Our Veterans deserve better.”