Senator Jon Tester today said it's time to stop running from veterans' mental health issues and for the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans' groups and local health providers to work together to improve the quality of life for veterans in Montana and nationwide.
Mental health issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), are among the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans with mental health issues suffer from higher levels of depression and unemployment.
Tester, speaking at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing, said the VA needs to think "outside the box' to increase access to mental health care for veterans, particularly those in rural areas.
"Mental illness isn't new news, it's been here forever," Tester said. "We've run from it for decades, and folks at the VA need to think outside the box. We need to get more medical professionals on the ground, especially in rural places like Montana. This issue isn't going to be solved tomorrow, but if we work on it together we can get a lot more done."
Tester, Montana's only member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, pushed the VA's Under Secretary for Health to explain how the department distributes medical professionals and mental health resources in rural areas.
Dr. Robert Petzel told Tester that increasing the use of telehealth, which allows rural veterans to receive care in their homes or at local clinics, improves veterans' access to care. Tester is a strong backer of telehealth, recently getting the VA to drop copayments for veterans who use the service.
Tester, who this week introduced a bill to provide recourse for service members who were incorrectly diagnosed with a personality disorder when they may be suffering from PTSD or recovering from sexual assault, also called for the military to do a better job of identifying symptoms of mental illness early on so service members and veterans can receive better care.
Senator Max Baucus is a cosponsor of Tester's measure to provide recourse for service members.
Tester's recent successes to increase veterans' access to care include getting the VA to adopt his model to increase mental health care in Montana and passing a bill to offer the same travel reimbursement to eligible veterans who travel to Vet Centers as those who travel to VA health care clinics.