About a hundred people attended an in-person town hall Friday held by Democratic US Senator Jon Tester in Helena to ask questions about veterans’ affairs, health care, voting rights and politics in general.
The forum, held at Helena College, was the second tester forum to be held in Montana this month. He appeared in Bozeman last Thursday. A spokesman for his office said no more town halls are planned yet.
In his opening remarks, Tester told attendees that the in-person forums were a positive change from virtual events that have become routine during the pandemic.
“It’s better than nothing, but certainly not as good as being able to see my bosses eyeball to eyeball and visit you about issues that are worrying you,” Tester said.
The crowd quickly launched into an hour-long forum with questions ranging from gun safety laws to nursing home closures, service at the Department of Veterans Affairs and whether Tester supports ranked voting.
A topic that the audience often returned to was improving healthcare infrastructure and services for veterans, topics several listeners said were personally important to them. Tester chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
In response to a question about mental health care and staffing shortages, Tester said he thinks it is “the biggest health problem this country will face in the next few decades.” He said he’s been working to increase the number of psychiatrists available through the VA and that Montana generally needs more providers.
“And if you live especially east of Billings and you’re in a crisis, there are some hotlines that are helpful, but the truth is, at some point you’ll probably need to see someone, either via video chat or in person,” Tester said. “I think it’s manpower. It will help encourage kids to go into the mental health field.”
Tester also said the federal government needs to do a better job of reducing wait times for services, starting with a veteran’s call to the VA to schedule an appointment, and improve its ability to track how many veterans are choosing a private health care provider instead to avoid delays in federal service .
Bruce Knutsen, a former veterans liaison in Tester’s office who is now retired, asked if Tester would help expand physical therapy and audiology services for Montana veterans in Bozeman, Great Falls, Butte, Kalispell and Hamilton.
“Bureaucracy is in the way at the moment,” said Knutsen. “The process is now failing because the rental and allocation of this additional space has been discontinued.”
Tester said he would put the issue on his radar and report it to the VA’s Undersecretary for Health, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who Tester says will be in Helena in early November.
“We will discuss this matter with him,” Tester said.
Another listener asked if Tester was paying attention to the closures of nursing homes and long-term care facilities in much of Montana, which they blamed on inadequate Medicaid reimbursement rates. Tester said that while it’s important that such facilities remain open, Medicaid rates are set by the state government.
“If you want the federal government to intervene more, you need to bring in more from the state,” Tester said. “I think there is one [legislative] session in January. That could be something to advocate for.”
Although much of the conversation focused on specific political issues and government hurdles, listeners also solicited Tester’s opinions on the health of the electoral system and the country’s political representation. As Election Day approaches in November, Tester said he supports lowering the barriers for citizens to go to vote.
“Every, every citizen of this country should be able to vote. And we should make it as easy as possible for them to vote,” Tester said to loud applause, adding that he supports Election Day voter registration in Montana, which was recently upheld following a legal battle. “If you are a citizen, we want you to register, we want you to vote. That’s what this country is about.”
One listener tried to press Tester into his answers about the vote, pointing to what he described as a murky political landscape.
“We are probably working in a system that is broken,” said the participant. “We elected three presidents who lost the popular vote, we have dark money, we have a two-party monopoly.”
Tester has been vague on his stance on the electoral college, saying he trusts the technology to closely follow the popular vote, but others see “some benefits” for the electoral college system. He said he didn’t know enough about ladder voting to have a strong opinion on it, pointing to the emergence of independent candidate Gary Buchanan in the race for Montana’s eastern congressional district as an example of a bipartisan challenge. Buchanan is up against Democrat Penny Ronning and Republican incumbent Matt Rosendale.
“He kind of breaks down this two-party system. I see a lot of Buchanan stuff happening in this city and throughout the state of Montana,” Tester said. “We’ll see. He could end up with 15% of the vote, he could end up with 50% of the vote. Who knows. Let’s see what happens.”
Throughout the event, Tester largely avoided criticizing his Republican counterparts in Washington, DC, as well as the GOP members who hold all of Montana’s statewide Partisan offices. Asked by an attendee how voters can support “good, honest candidates” in the upcoming election, Tester said a word mattered.
“Vote,” Tester said. “In general, the differences in the state of Montana are pretty clear. I’m not telling anyone who to vote for because that’s your choice and you should make it. But the information is out there if you pay attention.”
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