(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester, a steadfast advocate for rural America, opened his new Governmental Affairs subcommittee today by holding federal agencies accountable for providing better health care in rural parts of the country like Montana.
Tester took charge of the panel – which is dedicated to improving government efficiency and effectiveness – earlier this year. He used his first hearing as an opportunity to make sure officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs are meeting their highly publicized goal of hiring 1,600 new mental health professionals.
“We need to address chronic health care workforce shortages in rural communities and in agencies like the VA,” Tester told Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s top health official. “The VA made a commitment to hire 1,600 new mental health clinicians and 300 support staff. Where are we on those hirings?”
Petzel told Tester that more than 1,300 mental health clinicians had been hired and that the department is close to meeting its overall hiring goal. He also highlighted the benefits of telehealth in reaching rural veterans – an option Tester has long-supported.
Tester also pushed hearing witnesses, which included officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service (IHS), to update him on their efforts to improve collaboration and information sharing so that rural Americans can get needed medical services closer to home.
“In many cases, you’re serving the same group of people,” noted Tester, who helped get the VA and IHS on the same page in Montana. “Do you have the flexibility you need to collaborate and get folks the help they need?”
Tester’s panel also heard testimony from Matt Kuntz, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Health in Montana. Kuntz told Tester that telehealth is a “valuable” tool for rural veterans and spoke of the need to find more ways to increase the retention of medical professionals in rural areas.
Today’s hearing is the first in a series of actions Tester plans to take to not only improve rural health care, but also to make sure taxpayers dollars are spent wisely by improving government efficiency and effectiveness at all levels. He recently highlighted how agency collaboration will be key to saving taxpayer money and improving government services.
Video of Tester’s hearing is available online HERE.