HELENA — Montana’s two major U.S. House candidates, Republican Ryan Zinke and Democrat John Lewis, have offered ideas on how to make good on the nation’s promises to veterans and how to give veterans a better voice.
At a press conference Tuesday in front of the Capitol, with a group of veterans standing behind him, Zinke announced a five-point plan to improve veterans’ care.
“There is no issue that’s more important than veterans to me,” said Zinke a former Navy SEAL who was a state senator from Whitefish.
His plan called for increasing administrative accountability at Veterans Affairs’ medical facilities, improving the access and quality of veterans’ care, increasing suicide awareness efforts among families and friends of veterans, upholding education promises to veterans and providing more job opportunities for veterans after they leave the service.
Montana has about 120,000 veterans. When their family members are added, this group constitutes the largest voting bloc in the state, he said.
Lewis late Monday announced his appointment of a 17-member Montana Veterans & Military Families Advisory Council, with members from across the state. Lewis said the panel is intended to give veterans here a voice when it comes to holding Congress accountable and keeping its promises to veterans.
“Before veterans are asked to sacrifice even more than they already have, I will fight to make sure members of Congress are making some sacrifices of their own,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he is inviting parents, children and spouses of veterans to join the advisory council.
“When members of the military serve our nation, often times the entire family shares in the sacrifice,” Lewis said.
As an aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Lewis said he has worked on successful legislation to help tackle unemployment among veterans. He said he supports more workforce development training, education and access to better health care for veterans in all communities and for all generations.
Zinke, meanwhile, said he backs greater scrutiny of VA medical facilities, including independent assessments.
“We’ve got to get at the culture of the VA at the top and make sure that people can be held accountable,” Zinke said.
He said that routine medical care for veterans, such as blood work and tests, should be done at local hospitals by local providers rather than forcing veterans to drive long distances. Likewise, he said the VA hospital at Fort Harrison, west of Helena, has one just orthopedic surgeon who does knee and hip replacements, leading to waiting times of a year or more.
“If you have a knee problem and you’re in chronic pain, there’s got to be a better way to get that surgery,” Zinke said, suggesting the use of local doctors.
Once veterans get through the labyrinth of waiting and red tape to get to Fort Harrison, they have told Zinke that the staff is respectful and the care they provide is good.
Zinke said he favors making more transparent the services and educational benefits available to veterans so they can maximize their benefits.
Also in the race is Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows of Missoula.
To provide more job opportunities for veterans, Zinke called for aligning industry standards with military standards, where possible, so veterans can make an easier transition to jobs after they return from military service.