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Combat Veterans Need Medical Care; Not Forced Mental Health Screenings

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Combat Veterans Need Medical Care; Not Forced Mental Health Screenings

** Open Letter to the Editor **

Dear editor,

Several news reports have criticized my decision to oppose unanimous passage of the Joshua Omvig Veterans' Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 327). Let me set the record straight.

First, I do support the intent of this legislation, which is to provide mental health services to veterans who may be at risk of suicide. As a practicing physician, I understand the seriousness of this issue. As a legislator, I also understand that our veterans need more than our good intentions and political posturing. Our veterans have the right to expect that the legislation we draft can deliver on our good intentions. Unfortunately, the current version of H.R. 327 some politicians want to rush through the Senate delivers substantially less.

One serious flaw with H.R. 327 is that it preconditions health care for veterans on mental health screening. In other words, if a veteran wants to be treated for a sore throat, or any other condition, they first have to undergo a comprehensive mental health screening. That is absurd. Failing to give our veterans an opt-out provision for such screenings violates their rights and their dignity. Veterans should have access to such screenings but the decision about whether to undergo mental health testing should rest with veterans, their family, and their doctor, not politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

Another flaw with H.R. 327 is that it requires the Veterans Administration (VA) to track veterans who received mental health care but lacks adequate measures to safeguard their intimate medical records. The VA's past failures to protect the privacy of veterans records show that this concern is well-founded. For instance, in May 2006, the VA announced that the Social Security numbers of 26.5 million veterans were stolen from the home of a VA employee. In response, the VA began sending letters to every living veteran and their spouse asking them to scour their credit reports to look for possible identity theft.

In another breach of confidentiality, the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 1999, shared the private medical records of more than 80,000 veterans with the Department of Justice in an effort to prohibit the purchasing of firearms by veterans who had been diagnosed as having mental health concerns at one point in their lives.

Yet, an accidental release of mental health records could be devastating for veterans and their families far beyond their right to bear arms. Many occupations that service members are suited for such as commercial pilots, federal or local law enforcement, or even school teachers sometimes require an applicant to divulge whether they have had mental health treatment, or been diagnosed for mental illness. Any bill addressing veterans' mental health care must provide explicit employment protection for veterans. This bill does not contain those protections.

Finally, the VA has already made serious strides in expanding mental health services, which calls the necessity of this bill into question. The VA has hired more than 3,000 mental health staff since 2005 and has suicide prevention coordinators in every VA facility. Moreover, each branch of our military already conducts mental health interviews and makes additional mental health services available to our troops while they are in a theater of operation and before they return home. Our veterans may be better served by continuing to target scarce resources to veterans who are most in need, rather than creating a feel good mandate that treats everyone unfairly and inadequately.

Nevertheless, I have told the sponsors of this legislation that I will lift my objection if simple improvements are made to this bill. I'm disappointed my objections have been misrepresented rather than honestly addressed.

Our nation's veterans have given all of us far more than their good intentions. They have sacrificed their time and, in some cases, their blood. The least Congress can do is turn our good intentions into actions and, in so doing, honor the people we are trying to serve.

- U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D.


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