Steamboat Springs A proposed law could more than triple travel reimbursements for military veterans seeking health care services.
U.S. Rep. John Salazar, a San Luis Valley Democrat, is co-authoring the Rural Veterans Healthcare Improvement Act of 2007, which if enacted would provide millions of dollars for veterans traveling for health care treatment - sometimes hundreds of miles from their homes.
Salazar said the act was reviewed Thursday by a House of Representatives subcommittee and has "bipartisan support across the House" from 38 co-sponsors. The act would increase travel reimbursements for veterans from 11 cents a mile to as much as 48.5 cents a mile.
The mileage rate has not increased since 1978, when gas cost about 63 cents a gallon, Salazar said.
Other portions of the act would allocate $3 million annually through 2010 for veterans' health services, create a new Center of Excellence health center, which would be one of five in the U.S. and require annual veterans' health care updates in Congress.
"This legislation is, in my opinion, something that veterans definitely need," said Gar Williams, junior vice commander with the American Legion in Craig. "It covers the main issues that are hindering veterans care in Colorado and rural states. : Travel reimbursement has been a financial hardship for veterans."
Williams served in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1975 and said he has since had blood pressure and foot problems.
Larry Mitchell served in the U.S. Air Force from 1962 to 1992 and retired as a Chief Master Sergeant. Mitchell said he served two tours of duty in Southeast Asia, one in Panama and one in the first Gulf War. Since retiring, he said, he has suffered hypertension caused by stress, diabetes type II from the toxic chemical blend known as Agent Orange, disorders with all four limbs and back problems.
Mitchell lives in South Fork, on the west end of the San Luis Valley. He said on a good day, the drive to veterans medical centers in either Denver or Albuquerque takes about five hours.
"Anytime I have to make a trip there, it's going to be overnight," he said. "I think this (legislation) is an excellent idea."
The Department of Veterans Affairs in Grand Junction recently announced plans to open a Telehealth Clinic in Craig to serve veterans in Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties as well as others from surrounding rural areas.
Salazar said the act currently in Congress could become part of a larger bill, which he viewed Wednesday as a good sign for its support and passage.
Salazar said he hoped the bill would be approved in the House by Fourth of July weekend.
"This leadership has made veterans' rights one of their top priorities, and we're very happy about that," he said.