November 10, 2015

Udall, Moran Introduce Bill to Help Rural Veterans Access Quality Health Care

Rural Veterans Improvement Act expands transportation & mental health options, creates incentives for rural doctors

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced the bipartisan Rural Veterans Improvement Act to tackle some of the biggest barriers to accessing quality health care for veterans in rural communities. More than 6 million veterans - including a third of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - live in rural areas of the country and often have to travel several hours to see their doctors at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. Many veterans in New Mexico, Kansas, and across the country have to rely on volunteers or family members to drive them to VA facilities, and some go without care entirely.

Udall and Moran wrote the Rural Veterans Improvement Act to address some of the biggest concerns that rural veterans have shared with them. The bill will expand transportation options for rural veterans, improve access to local mental health care, create incentives for doctors and nurses to pursue careers in rural areas, and require the VA to evaluate maintenance needs at community clinics and prioritize the most urgent projects.

"In New Mexico, many veterans live hours from the closest VA hospital. Veterans in communities like Carlsbad, Taos or Silver City have to drive hundreds of miles for specialist care in Albuquerque," Udall said. "When I travel across New Mexico, veterans tell me they're frustrated that they can't get care closer to home, that high turnover at local clinics means they don't have a regular doctor, and in some communities, that their local clinics are cramped and in need of repairs. That's why I've teamed up with Senator Moran to offer a bipartisan solution. All of our nation's veterans should be able to access the quality health care they have earned - no matter where they live."

"Veterans living in rural communities in Kansas and across the nation continue to struggle accessing health care they deserve," Moran said. "With 41 percent of all veterans enrolled in the VA health care system living in rural communities, we must make certain they are not dismissed or forgotten because they call rural America home. The Rural Veterans Improvement Act offers common-sense solutions to reduce the burden of travel on veterans by creating methods for accessing care closer to home."

The Rural Veterans Improvement Act takes a four-pronged approach to improving health care for rural veterans.

Enhancing Mental Health Care Access: Veterans who are not able to access care for post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and other service-connected mental health issues are at higher risk for committing suicide. The bill will address this problem by going beyond the Veterans Choice Act to make fee-for-service care available when treatment at a local clinic isn't an option, or when treatment options such as complementary or alternative medicine - including traditional Native American healing methods - are not available at a VA facility.

Expanding Transportation Options: When veterans do have to travel to see a specialist at a VA hospital, the trip can be time-consuming and pose a major logistical challenge. The bill builds on the VA's transportation program by establishing a grant to support innovative transportation options for veterans in rural communities.

Building and Retaining a Rural Health Care Workforce: Rural VA clinics often face high turnover among doctors, nurses and other staff. The bill improves retention by establishing a pilot program to provide financial incentives for providers to work in rural areas, creating a training program to prepare health care providers for work in rural communities, and streamlining the hiring of retired military doctors into the VA health care system.

Improving Rural VA Clinics: With many VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs) around the country in need of repair, the bill would require a comprehensive assessment of clinics that require expansion or improvements. This will help save money and improve care for veterans.