A senior Democratic senator is pushing Veterans Affairs officials to speed up reforms to the department’s travel reimbursement program, saying deficiencies in the system are hurting the finances of rural veterans.
“Veterans and caregivers are contacting my office now more than ever seeking assistance with the Self-Service Beneficiary Travel System and expressing their deep frustration and belief that VA is preventing veterans from accessing their benefits. earned,” Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Tester, D-Mont., wrote in a letter to VA leadership Wednesday.
“Despite a number of improvements and commitments by the VA to address veterans’ concerns, Montana veterans and those across the nation are not reaping the impact of these efforts.”
Veterans traveling for care at a VA health facility (or for approved care at a non-VA health facility) may be reimbursed for travel costs if they have a disability rating of at least 30% or meet other requirements financial or medical. Caregivers may also be eligible for reimbursement under certain circumstances.
The department currently charges 41.4 cents per mile for approved trips, along with other expenses such as parking and tolls. For veterans with long trips to the nearest VA medical facilities, travel costs can add up to a full tank of gas or more.
The VA launched electronic submission of travel reimbursement claims in late 2020, but Tester said the expansion has not helped individuals in rural areas and families already facing major financial problems.
“Many veterans, especially those most in need of financial assistance for transportation to and from medical appointments, do not have a computer or smartphone,” he wrote.
“VA also didn’t account for unstable Internet access — especially in areas like rural Montana where having reliable, fast Internet access and public computers can be a luxury.”
In correspondence with Tester last year, VA officials promised to increase access to Internet-connected tablets and computers at department locations to help facilitate access to online filing systems.
But Tester said public awareness of these options remains low and training for veterans who need the services is sporadic.
The chairman noted that travel reimbursement claims from veterans were down about 23% from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2021. He said he doubts lower travel during the pandemic accounts for all of that difference, since in-person medical appointments were only 14% less over that same period.
“For the many rural veterans who must travel great distances for care or veterans who make every trip for food and gas supplies last, [missing out on travel reimbursements] it means bypassing necessary medical care,” Tester wrote.
More information on the travel reimbursement program is available on the VA website.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policy. His work has won numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.