Honor Veterans—Pass Excellence in Mental Health Act

Recently a young woman in San Diego contacted our office at the Military Mental Health Project. She is a U.S. army veteran diagnosed with PTSD, and was homeless. While in the service she was a victim of rape. Because her case was undocumented, she did not qualify for certain veterans’ benefits.

The Military Mental Health Project was able to connect this servicewoman with federal and local resource providers, such as the VA and community mental health services, in her area. She got treatment in the form of individual counseling and group therapy. She now has a job she likes, is no longer living on the streets, and is happy with the direction her life is headed.

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Stories like this one show how critical mental health treatment is and how important it is that we help make sure America’s returning warriors can get it. At the Military Mental Health Project, it’s our mission to stand up for servicemen and women and veterans struggling with mental health issues. That’s why we’ve joined the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and other veterans’ organizations in supporting the bipartisan Excellence in Mental Health Act.

Twenty-two veterans die from suicide every day. Nearly 25 percent of our veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will confront PTSD or another mental health issue. Across the country, far too many veterans are going undiagnosed or untreated and are suffering because of it.

The Excellence in Mental Health Act strengthens community mental health services and expands access to care to ensure America’s veterans, and all Americans struggling with a mental health disorder, have access to the treatment they need to live productive lives.

The bill would help put in place one of the last major steps toward mental health parity. This month the Obama Administration finalized critical rules that will require insurance companies to put mental health care on an equal footing with physical care. That is an incredible advancement. But having access to insurance that covers mental health care isn’t as helpful if you don’t have anywhere to go to actually get care.

The Excellence in Mental Health Act would provide parity in terms of access to care. The bill establishes criteria for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics that would provide a wide range of quality mental health services. These would include 24- hour crisis care; increased integration of physical, mental and substance abuse treatment so they can be treated more holistically; and expanded family support programs.

These federally recognized centers can be existing mental health centers, new centers, or any health care provider that offers these services and meets accountability standards. These facilities would then be able to receive payment for mental health services the same way that qualified health centers get paid for primary care services.

Achieving parity in access to mental health treatment is extremely important to the men and women who have served our country in battle. It’s also critical for law enforcement, who are often called to respond to psychiatric emergencies, and who are asked to put a veteran with a disorder in jail when they should be receiving treatment instead. That’s why the National Sheriff’s Association and the National Association of Police Organizations strongly support the Excellence in Mental Health Act as well.

Mental health experts and advocacy groups are also very strongly in favor of the bill.

And there is growing bipartisan support in the Congress and a real chance to get this legislation passed this year. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have put together an impressive bipartisan coalition in the Senate. The bill also has bipartisan support in the House, where Reps Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) sponsor it.

Access to basic treatment literally turns lives around. This one act by Congress can help millions, including veterans who have honorably served our nation, to get their lives on the right track and be productive members of our society. Congress could honor our servicemen and women by working together to complete this bill by year’s end.

Angel is the executive director of the Military Mental Health Project, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization working to create a culture of acceptance, awareness and action regarding mental health and military families. To sign a petition supporting the Excellence in Mental Health Act or for more information about the Military Mental Health Project please visit www.militarymentalhealthproject.com.