By Troy Carter
Montana's Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester recently introduced a bill to improve veteran's access to mental health professionals.
Senate Bill 1155, titled the Rural Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, would give the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs authority to let veterans be seen by licensed mental health counselors, including marriage and family therapists.
The VA employs more than 23,000 mental health professionals, but less than 200 licensed counselors are among them, a mismatch that can leave rural veterans stranded.
"There's very much a shortage of mental health professionals in Montana,"Tester said in a phone interview with the Chronicle. "You get east of Billings and I think there's only one psychiatrist all the way to Bismarck, N.D."
Tester said he toured many of the state's veteran facilities and has worked with veteran advocacy groups to craft the bill.
The people working on the ground know the problem best, and the VA knows what the problems are, so the bill requires the VA to report on problems, Tester said. Montana is home to more than 102,000 veterans.
Rural veterans are sometimes treated using telemedicine, a technique connecting veterans to doctors using video conferencing.
"Bottom line is there's a big stigma attached to mental health and the only way we can break this down is to make sure there's an adequate number of professionals working,"Tester said.
Matthew Kuntz, state director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said his organization is in strong support of the bill.
"It makes a lot of sense to include these professionals because they are licensed by the same board, so why isn't the VA using them," said Kuntz. "This is an easy way to dramatically expand the treatment for our nation's veterans."
The bill would also strengthen the VA's requirement to work with the immediate families of veterans who are often the first to deal with issues, yet often the least educated.
"This is really important because the most critical resource our nation has for treating PTSD is the veteran's family," said Kuntz. "The better educated and cared for the family is, the better the chances they can help their loved one navigate the difficult journey to recovery.
"Anything we can do to make telemedicine better is a win. I know the tribal veteran reps have been working with telemedicine. They've proven it's an effective tool," added Kuntz.
Tester is working to find a Republican senator to add as a cosponsor for the bill. He said caring for veterans should be a bipartisan issue. He is confident his colleagues will agree the U.S. can serve veterans better.
"This is about keeping the promise,"Tester said.