Mr. President, I rise today in strong support of the Veterans Road to Health Care Act of 2005 that I introduced with my colleagues Senator Burns and Senator Thune. This legislation would raise the travel reimbursement rate for veterans who must travel to Department of Veterans Affairs' hospitals for treatment. The current reimbursement rate is 11 cents per mile. This bill would raise that figure to match the federal employees travel reimbursement rate which is 40.5 cents per mile.
The average price for gas in Wyoming right now is $2.20 per gallon. The current rate of 11 cents per mile barely makes a dent in the expenses incurred by veterans who have no choice but to travel by automobile for health care. I have received numerous letters from veterans in Wyoming describing how difficult it is to work into their budget the money necessary to travel between their hometown and the VA hospital. Being able to access health care is vital; veterans should not have to choose between driving to receive needed treatment and being able to afford other necessities.
In Wyoming, we have two VA Medical Centers, one in Cheyenne and one in Sheridan. Veterans have to travel to one of these facilities to be treated for health conditions and be covered by the health care plan that the government provides for them. This poses a serious problem in terms of travel expense, especially with the rise in gasoline prices. Some towns in Wyoming are over 300 miles away from the nearest VA facility. A veteran living in Riverton must drive 215 miles to the Sheridan facility or nearly 300 to the Cheyenne facility. This problem is then compounded when these facilities, which provide great service for our veterans, must refer the veterans to a larger hospital in Salt Lake City or Denver for additional treatment or procedures.
This bill addresses the health care of veterans who have special needs. It would allow veterans who have been referred to a special care center by their VA physician to be reimbursed under the Travel Beneficiary Program for their travel to the specialized facility. This applies only to those veterans who cannot receive adequate care at their VA facility.
This legislation is important to all veterans, but it is especially significant to those veterans who live in rural states, like my home state of Wyoming. Rural states are less populated; there is greater distance between towns and far fewer options for transportation. Wyoming has miles and miles of miles and miles. Cars are the main mode of transportation and many times the only option.
It is our duty to compensate our servicemen and women for the sacrifices that they made defending the freedoms of this country. With our current recruitment and retention problems in the military, it is our nation's responsibility to give veterans the kind of access to healthcare they have earned through their service to our country. The rising cost of gasoline should not be a factor for veterans to ignore their health concerns because they cannot afford to travel to the nearest veterans' clinic. I strongly urge my colleagues to support this important bill.