tester town hall helena montana
Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester greets attendees at a Helena town hall on Oct. 14, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

About a hundred people attended an in-person town hall held by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in Helena on Friday to raise questions about veterans’ affairs, health care, voting rights and politics in general.

The forum, held at Helena College, was the second Tester has organized in Montana this month. He appeared in Bozeman last Thursday. A spokesperson for his office said no other town halls have yet been scheduled.

In his opening remarks, Tester told attendees that the in-person forums are a positive change from virtual events that became routine during the pandemic.

“Those are better than nothing, but they’re certainly not as good as being able to see my bosses eyeball to eyeball and being able to visit with you guys about issues you’re concerned about,” Tester said.

“Everybody, everybody who’s a citizen in this country ought to be able to vote. And we ought to make it as easy as possible for them to vote.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

The crowd quickly launched into an hour-long forum with question topics ranging from gun safety legislation to nursing home closures, services at the Department of Veterans Affairs and whether Tester supports ranked-choice voting. 

One theme the audience often returned to was how to improve health care infrastructure and services for veterans, issues several audience members said mattered to them personally. Tester chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs committee.

In response to a question about mental health care and staffing shortages, Tester said he thought it was “the biggest health care issue facing this country” over the next several decades. He said he’s worked to increase the number of psychiatrists available via the VA, and that Montana needs more providers in general.

“And if you live particularly east of Billings and you’re in crisis, there are some crisis lines which are helpful, but the truth is, at some point in time you’re probably going to need to see somebody, either using video chat or in-person,” Tester said. “I think it’s manpower. Encouraging kids to go into the mental health fields will help.”

Tester also said the federal government needs to do a better job of shortening wait times for services, starting when a veteran calls the VA to schedule an appointment, and improve its ability to track how many veterans opt for a private health care provider instead because of delays in federal services.

Bruce Knutsen, a former veterans liaison in Tester’s office who’s now retired, asked whether 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 right now,” Knutsen said. “The process is now failing because the leasing and the contracting of these additional spaces has stopped.”  

Tester said he’d put the issue on his radar and raise it for the undersecretary of health at the VA, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who Tester said will be in Helena in early November.

“We will take this issue up with him,” Tester said. 

Another audience member asked whether Tester is paying attention to the closure of nursing homes and long-term care facilities across much of Montana, which they attributed to insufficient Medicaid reimbursement rates. Tester said that while it is important for such facilities to stay open, Medicaid rates are set by state government

“If you want the federal government to pitch in more, you’ve got to pitch more in from the state,” Tester said. “I think there’s a [legislative] session coming up in January. That might be something to advocate for.”

Though much of the conversation centered on specific policy issues and government hurdles, audience members also asked for Tester’s input on the health of the country’s voting systems and political representation. With November’s Election Day approaching, Tester said he supports lowering barriers for citizens to vote.

“Everybody, everybody who’s a citizen in this country ought to be able to vote. And we ought to make it as easy as possible for them to vote,” Tester said to loud applause, adding that he supports Montana’s Election Day voter registration, which was recently reaffirmed after litigation. “If you’re a citizen, we want you to register, we want you to vote. That’s what this country is about.”

One audience member tried to push Tester on his responses about voting, gesturing to what he described as a dire political landscape.

“We are arguably working in a system that is broken,” the attendee said. “We’ve had three presidents elected who’ve lost the popular vote, we have dark money, we have a two-party monopoly.” 

Tester was vague in his stance about the Electoral College, saying he trusted technology to accurately track the popular vote but that others see “some advantages” to the Electoral College system. He said he doesn’t know enough about ranked-choice voting to have a strong opinion on it, and pointed to the emergence of independent candidate Gary Buchanan in Montana’s Eastern Congressional District race as one example of a challenge to the two-party system. Buchanan is running against Democrat Penny Ronning and Republican incumbent Matt Rosendale.

“He’s kind of breaking down that two-party system. I see a lot of Buchanan stuff going on in this town and all over the state of Montana,” Tester said. “We’ll see. He might end up with 15% of the vote, he might end up with 50% of the vote. Who knows. We’ll see what happens.”

Throughout the event, Tester largely avoided criticizing his Republican colleagues in Washington, D.C., as well as the GOP members who hold every statewide partisan office in Montana. Asked by one attendee how voters can support “good honest candidates” going into the upcoming election, Tester said it comes down to one word.

“Vote,” Tester said. “In the general, the differences are pretty clear in the state of Montana. I’m not telling anybody who to vote for because that’s your decision and you should make it. But the information’s out there if you pay attention.”

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.