Ernst offers bill to improve veterans' access to mental healthcare

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Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has introduced legislation to strengthen veterans' mental healthcare by making it easier to get help outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The proposal would amend the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, to allow veterans access to non-VA mental healthcare if they can show the agency is not giving them "adequate or timely" care.

It would also roll back a requirement that veterans must live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or have waited longer than 30 days before accessing non-VA mental healthcare.

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“There is no acceptable VA wait time for mental health care treatment for our veterans,” said Ernst, also a veteran, in a statement.

“The limits to how much suffering a veteran can endure simply cannot be accurately measured by the VA or any medical professional.”

The legislation, which is Ernst’s first bill since joining the Senate, also presses the VA to hire more mental health professionals.

Lawmakers passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act last year in the wake of a scandal over long patient wait times at the VA.

Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said Ernst's legislation would give “veterans more control over their own health care.”

“The Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act of 2015 addresses the unacceptable wait times for mental health care at many VA facilities by giving veterans more control over their own health care — not VA bureaucrats,” he said in a statement.

“It is outrageous that even after the implementation of the Choice Card program, veterans are still waiting on average over 30 days for a mental health care appointment.”

Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and John Cornyn (Texas) are also backing her proposal.

“This legislation is an important first step towards getting more mental health professionals into the VA system and giving veterans the ability to quickly access mental health services when the VA cannot meet their needs,” Tillis said in a statement.

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