Private mental health providers must stand ready to help veterans

Over the past several years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has undertaken significant efforts to expand services and capacity to meet the growing mental health needs of veterans.  Despite efforts to hire and train more providers, create more hospitable environments, and adopt new models of care delivery, significant challenges remain in how the VA ensures access to high quality care.

Recent revelations about true wait times for VA services are just one example of this challenge. Unfortunately, however, ensuring more timely access to care and enforcing accountability within the system will take more than leadership changes. At the same time, while it is clear that the VA is a critical component of the healthcare delivery system for our former servicemen and women, it is equally clear that it cannot and should not be expected to do so alone. 

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In an August 2012 Executive Order, President Obama called upon the VA to create public-private partnerships as a means of addressing concerns about access to mental health care for veterans, and their families. Since that time, several pilot programs were announced that would enable veterans to seek services in other federally qualified community health centers. The VA also announced $9 billion in contracts to create provider networks to serve veterans in their communities. More recently, Congress moved to create easier access to civilian providers.  While these efforts are important, alone, they are not sufficient to ensure access to high quality mental health care for all veterans and their families. Not all veterans wish to seek services at or through the VA; many in fact  may not meet VA eligibility criteria. Similarly, their families, who also experience significant health concerns, are often not able to avail themselves of VA care.

Given the ongoing needs of our veterans, their children and families, non-VA public and private health care systems and providers need to prepare to serve those who have served us. One important effort underway in this regard is a collaborative network of academic medical centers including Rush University Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Emory University, Duke University, University of Michigan and UCLA, supported in part by the Welcome Back Veterans (WBV) initiative, a collaborative program of Major League Baseball and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. With this philanthropic support, the WBV partners provide a variety of veteran-related services including outreach and direct care for patients and families, public and professional education, and development and implementation of innovative care models. These programs do not look to replace existing VA and military providers. Rather, they extend the reach of care to those not receiving required treatments and collaborate with the community-based organizations as well as other relevant social service providers to improve care of veterans and their families. 

Government efforts must continue to insure that our nation’s veterans and their families receive the care they so dearly earned. Equally important, the contributions of the public and private health care system should, along with the VA, be seen as part of the potential solution and receive the support necessary to ensure the success of our nation’s shared mission.  

Pollack is chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center and Tanielian is a senior research analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. This piece was prepared in collaboration with Drs. John Greden, Patricia Lester, Robert Murphy, Barbara Rothbaum, and Naomi Simon, who run collaborative programs within “Welcome Back Veterans.”