Tester’s Landmark VA Reform Bill Heads to President’s Desk

Senate Passes Senator’s Bipartisan Bill to Scrap Choice Program, Streamline Community Care & Improve VA Health Care

(U.S. Senate) – U.S. Senator Jon Tester is giving the VA Choice Program the boot by passing bipartisan reform legislation that cuts government bureaucracy, puts veterans and their doctors in charge of their health care, and strengthens the VA for Montana veterans.

Tester’s VA MISSION Act passed the Senate 92-5 and scraps the VA Choice Program, delivering a better health care experience for Montana’s veterans whether they seek care at the VA or at a local health care provider in their community.

“This nation owes our veterans more than a thank you,” said Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Veterans deserve a health care system that works for them, regardless of where they live, what medical condition they are struggling with, and whatever their means. Our bill delivers a health care system that is worthy of their service.”

Tester and Republican Chairman Johnny Isakson wrote the Caring for Our Veterans Act with input from veterans, advocates and the VA. They negotiated with leaders of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to include it in the VA MISSION Act.

“Our bill puts veterans in the driver’s seat and removes government bureaucracy that has caused so many headaches for Montana veterans,” Tester added. “This bill makes the VA stronger, and allows veterans to seek care in their community when the VA can’t deliver.”

The VA MISSION Act:

Reforms Community Health Care

  • Scraps the Choice Program as we know it today.
  • Establishes one community care program that allows veterans and their doctors to choose where to get health care.
  • Streamlines the process for veterans to access community providers.
  • Creates new standards for faster reimbursements to private providers who care for veterans.
  • Requires stronger accountability and transparency to ensure government contractors that administer the VA’s community care are meeting the terms of their contractual requirements.
  • Strengthens safety measures and guidelines for private providers to prescribe opioids to veterans.

Strengthens VA Health Care

  • Provides greater recruitment, retention and relocation incentives so that the VA can attract and maintain high-quality providers.
  • Increases the amount the VA will reimburse medical professionals for education debt reduction.
  • Removes barriers for veterans to access mental telehealth care closer to home.
  • Incentivizes medical residents and providers to work at rural, tribal and underserved VA facilities.
  • Develops criteria to identify underserved medical facilities and incentivize medical professionals to complete their residencies in rural areas.
  • Establishes mobile deployment teams to provide additional care at the highest-need VA facilities.
  • Recruits medical scribes to assist physicians so that doctors can focus on serving veterans, and not filling out paperwork.

Expands Caregiver Benefits

  • Expands eligibility for VA caregiver support services to veterans of all eras, and modernizes and strengthens support services.

“After 24 years of service in the United States Navy, including two combat tours to Vietnam, my 20 years in the cockpit took its toll on my ability to hear,” said Tom Humphreys, Navy veteran from Noxon. “The authorization for me to get my hearing aids was made possible by Senator Jon Tester’s involvement, whether through phone calls, emails, or letters. When Senator Tester speaks, people listen and respond. My wife and I are grateful for all the efforts our Senator Jon Tester makes on our behalf, as any disability (service related or not) affects everyone who respects and cares about the veteran and his or her quality of life.”

“From Senator Tester’s bill, the VA will be working directly with local doctors to provide us veterans who live out in the country better access to medical facilities,” said John Klag, Coast Guard veteran from Libby. “I’m all for that. It should be faster for me to get in to see my doctor now.”

“I feel fortunate as a post-9/11 caregiver of a 100% disabled veteran to have the support of the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC),” said Hannah Nieskens, Post-9/11 Caregiver and 2018 Elizabeth Dole Caregiver Fellow for the state of Montana. “This program currently provides qualified post-9/11 caregivers with important training, support, and financial resources. The caregivers of pre-9/11 veterans, who represent 80 percent of our nation’s 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers, deserve equality and access to the same resources. The VA MISSION Act of 2018 provides the opportunity to correct the existing inequality by expanding the PCAFC to caregivers of all eras.”

“Caregiver expansion would be awesome for my family,” said Diane Mooney, caregiver and wife of Wayne Mooney, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, from Victor. “Wayne is a Vietnam vet who was hit with Agent Orange. He has neuropathy as well as eight other diseases from his exposure. Over time he’s become debilitated. I became a caregiver, not immediately after a war, but over time. It’s the same thing, it just comes at us a little slower. In my case, I used to work full time but now I work part time and try to do everything at home as well. Senator Tester’s bill would sure be a huge, huge blessing for us and others.”

“We’ve seen veterans for years without any problems. Since the Choice Program, I sit on hold from 9 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, and when we do get payment from Choice, it’s for half of what we’re owed,” said Kristi Parrotte, owner of Physical Therapy Down Under in Havre. “Our poor veterans have to wait months to get approved for physical therapy that they should have been getting for months already. As a small provider, we’ve had to write off almost $9,000 of claims that we submitted on time. When we worked with VA Montana, we never had this issue. Veterans could get authorized and scheduled, and we never had issues getting paid. Senator Tester’s bill cuts out the middle man so I don’t have to wait on hold with a third party contractor. I would love to work with VA Montana again.” 

“We are deeply grateful for Senator Tester’s effort to improve the flexibility of the VA system to allow veterans to receive care in their community,” said Matt Kuntz, Executive Director of NAMI Montana. “One of the things that NAMI Montana is especially excited about in this bill is that it sets the rate for community care as the Medicare rate, but it authorizes the VA to pay higher rates in rural areas. This overcomes the real world challenge that happens often in the medical system of having a patient population that needs care, but having a payment reimbursement rate that is so low that the medical providers cannot pay to see them. The Caring for Our Veterans Act is a real step forward in the VA’s ability to provide healthcare to veterans whose circumstances prevent them from receiving care at VA facilities.”

“On behalf of the Montana Chiropractic Association, our members, and our veterans, I'd like to thank Senator Tester for his work on the VA MISSION Act which has been a year’s long bipartisan process to replace the broken CHOICE program,” said Dr. Marcus Nynas, Immediate Past President of the Montana Chiropractic Association. “As Doctors of Chiropractic, like all physicians, we got into health care to help people. The provisions that Senator Tester worked to include will allow us to help our veterans. We also own small businesses throughout Montana and the provisions to ensure that we are paid promptly for providing necessary treatments to our veterans will allow us to continue to work within the VA healthcare system. This bill is a win win for patients and providers, and we thank Senator Tester for his work to ensure its passage.”

“We appreciate Senator Tester’s efforts to make sure our veterans have access to state of the art care close to home,” said Dr. Patrick Cobb, oncologist at St Vincent Frontier Cancer Center. “This bill would remove many of the barriers that have made it difficult for veterans to access community specialty care.”