Domenici, Obama Cosponsor Bill to Expand Mental Health Care Access for Veterans
U.S. Senators Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) today introduced legislation to improve access to services for the thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are increasingly struggling with combat-related mental health disorders.
Domenici and Obama have cosponsored the Veterans' Mental Health Outreach and Access Act, a bipartisan measure that will authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to develop and implement a comprehensive national program to increase the availability of mental health support so that veterans affected by combat-related mental health problems do not go without the care they need.
The Domenici-Obama bill would place particular emphasis on National Guardsmen and Reserve veterans serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. These "civilian soldiers" often return from combat duty and immediately resume civilian life and may not have adequate access to readjustment services. The legislation includes provisions to extend counseling services to veterans' families, who may also experience issues with readjustment after their loved-ones have returned from deployment.
"Virtually all returning veterans and their families will face readjustment problems. These soldiers and their families deserve the best care and treatment possible, but for those returning to communities remote from VA services, care isn't always available. It is my hope that this legislation will help close the gaps we currently have in our mental health service delivery systems and provide support to those who have experienced mental health problems as a result of their service to their country," said Domenici, a longtime mental health advocate.
"As many of our bravest men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan with combat-related psychological injuries, our top priority should be providing them with the mental health care they deserve," said Senator Obama. "This legislation will strengthen mental health and peer counseling support for our veterans, as well as launch a national effort to ensure our Guardsmen and Reservists living in rural communities receive the same quality and access to mental health care as every other veteran served by the Veterans Administration," said Obama.
Recognizing the seriousness and prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems among veterans, the Domenici-Obama bill calls on the VA Secretary to develop a national program to train returning service members for positions as peer outreach workers and support specialists.
In any remote areas of the country in which the VA determines there is inadequate access to a VA medical center, the bill directs the Secretary of the VA to contract with community mental health centers to provide treatment and support services and readjustment counseling. However, any resulting contracts would require centers to first train and adhere to the VA's expertise and standards of care in mental health. It also will require any contract-provider to hire a qualified peer specialist, as well as have its clinicians participate in a training program to ensure services are tailored to meet the specialized needs of combat-affected veterans.
New data from the Department of Defense indicates that since 2005, 50 percent of Army National Guardsmen and 44 percent of Marine Reservists who served in Iraq have reported mental health concerns in post-deployment assessments.