(U.S. Senate) — During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing yesterday on research at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Chairman Jon Tester pressed VA officials to ensure rural veterans are benefiting from VA research efforts, particularly their mental health efforts, and expand opportunities the Department provides to researchers in rural America.
“Rural America tends to rise to the top when it comes to suicides,” said Tester. “Whether you’re in Alaska or Montana, or any other rural state, they tend to be higher there. Are you guys doing research in rural areas on that?”
The Chief Research and Development Officer for VA’s Office of Research and Development Dr. Rachel Ramoni claimed VA’s ability to do research in rural areas is constrained by the limited number of academic affiliates there. Currently, Montana is one of only three states without a VA research site.
Tester doubled down on his call to expand mental health research in Montana and rural America: “There’s got to be a way, I mean we’ve got internet, we’ve got broadband, we’ve got a university system in Montana that’s pretty damn good that has everything from a [physician assistant] to nurse programs that are pretty doggone good. I think it’s a big mistake to say you guys don’t have the big university, we don’t have the Ivy League schools and all that stuff… especially when it comes to mental health, rural America is afflicted by it more…than anywhere else on a per capita basis.”
Later in the hearing, Tester pushed Dr. Ramoni again: “I want you to enlighten me because we started out this hearing and you talked about [how] research has to be done in areas where there are major universities. Senator Blackburn just talked about Vanderbilt, which is a major university, and how that the VA funded projects were solely for VA and didn’t utilize the university. Enlighten me why more of this isn’t done in rural America, because what you just told her is that you don’t need the universities, and what you told us earlier…is that you need to do research where there are major universities.”
Tester also questioned National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Montana Executive Director Matt Kuntz on how to improve access to research projects for veterans in Montana. Kuntz highlighted his support for advancing big projects, including VA’s Million Veteran Program and the Hannon Precision Brain Health Initiative, and making sure those programs are decentralized enough so “it’s not the VA’s choice whether or not they can come or not to our state. It’s just a matter of when and how.”
A staunch proponent of improving veterans’ mental health care through improved research, Tester championed the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act and provisions of the STRONG Veterans Act to expand research on veterans’ mental health conditions and treatment, especially in rural areas, in order to improve their care.