November 10, 2015

Keeping Our Promise to Veterans

We have a proud tradition of military service in New Mexico. This Wednesday, on Veterans Day, we will honor all of the men and women who have served to keep our nation free. It's a day to thank those who served and remember those who are still overseas in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Few of us truly know the burden they — and their families — have borne. But we must always remember the debt we owe them. That includes ensuring that all of our veterans are getting the care they deserve, no matter who they are or where they live.

Here in New Mexico, many of our veterans live in rural communities and face unique barriers to getting health care and other services. For example, many live hours from the nearest VA hospital. They face challenges like high turnover among doctors and nurses at regional clinics, and a shortage of specialists — especially mental health providers.

We must ensure that they — and the 6 million veterans living in rural communities across the country — can get the quality care they have earned. That’s why I’ve partnered with Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas to introduce the Rural Veterans Improvement Act.

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Listening to veterans in Taos to learn about their experiences with veterans’ health care services.

Our bill tackles some of the biggest hurdles to accessing quality health care for veterans living in rural communities. Mental health care is crucial to the well-being of many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but rural veterans often lack access to traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress experts. Our bill would provide veterans with more options by allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to work with local mental health and alternative care providers.

Our bill builds on the VA’s transportation program that helps rural veterans find rides to the VA hospital when they do have to travel to see a specialist. Silver City, Roswell, Carlsbad and many other communities have successful driving programs, led by volunteers and some professionals. Our bill would make grants available to expand this transportation option — creating jobs in the process.

We also create incentives to attract and retain staff at rural clinics so veterans can know that their trusted doctors and nurses will be there for them. Financial incentives and specialized training for doctors who pursue careers in rural areas would help strengthen clinics across New Mexico.

Finally, our bill requires the VA to take a step back and do a comprehensive assessment of its community clinics to determine what improvements are needed. There’s a repair backlog at clinics across the country, and we need to prioritize the most urgent projects.

No veteran should go without care because an appointment is too far away. And all our veterans deserve a doctor who is committed to their community and their long-term health. We can do better, and I’ll keep pushing Congress until we do.