A top Democratic senator is pushing Veterans Affairs officials to speed up reforms to the department’s travel reimbursement program, saying shortcomings in the system are hurting rural veterans’ finances.

“Veterans and caregivers are contacting my office now more than ever to request assistance with the Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System, and express deep frustration and their belief that VA is keeping veterans from accessing their earned benefits,” Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., wrote in a letter to VA leadership on Wednesday.

“Despite a number of improvements and commitments by VA to address the concerns of veterans, Montana veterans and those nationwide are not reaping the impact of those efforts.”

Veterans traveling for care at a VA health facility (or for approved care at a non-VA health facility) can be reimbursed for travel costs if they have a disability rating of at least 30% or meet other financial or medical requirements. Caregivers can also qualify for reimbursement under certain circumstances.

The department currently pays 41.4 cents per mile for approved travel, along with other expenses such as parking and tolls. For veterans with lengthy trips to the nearest VA medical facilities, the travel costs can total a full tank of gas or more.

VA launched electronic filing for travel reimbursement claims in late 2020, but Tester said that expansion hasn’t helped individuals in rural areas and families already facing significant 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 a smart phone,” he wrote.

“VA also did not account for inconsistent access to internet — especially in areas like rural Montana where it can be a luxury to have access to reliable and fast internet and public computers.”

In correspondence with Tester last year, VA officials promised to increase access to internet-connected tablets and computers at department locations to help ease access to the online filing systems.

But Tester said public awareness of those options remains low, and training for the veterans who need the services is sporadic.

The chairman noted that travel reimbursement requests from veterans were down about 23% from fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2021. He said he doubts lower travel during the pandemic accounts for all of that difference, since in-person medical appointments were only down 14% over that same period.

“For many rural veterans who have to drive great distances for care or veterans stretching every grocery trip and tank of gas, [missing out on travel reimbursements] will mean skipping necessary medical care,” Tester wrote.

More information on the travel reimbursement program is available at the VA website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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