Congress makes headway to improve mental health care for veterans — but is not done

Congress makes headway to improve mental health care for veterans — but is not done
© SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in May in the U.S. since 1949, is a pivotal time in recognizing and supporting the nearly 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental health issue.

Pop culture has made strides in bringing mental health to the forefront of national conversation and in destigmatizing the discussion. Celebrities and influencers continue to be incredible advocates on this issue, speaking openly, honestly and, perhaps most importantly, publicly about the reality of mental illness and how vital it is to address with oneself and others.  

Congress simultaneously has taken this issue head on by making real legislative change to recognize our country’s responsibility to ensure Americans have better access to the resources they need to care for themselves and their families. The 21st Century Cures Act, bipartisan legislation spearheaded by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and signed into law in 2016, included the greatest expansion in funding for mental health programs since the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996.

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However, Congress’s work in improving mental health care is nowhere near done. In fact, Republican Main Street Partnership members are now leading a bipartisan charge to identify and improve a critical demographic of the almost 46 million Americans living with mental illness: military veterans.

Our coalition of GOP legislators is proud to be represented by 13 veterans spanning every branch of the military. Since this also is Military Appreciation Month, we recognize and thank Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Reps. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), Paul Cook (R-Calif.), Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), Bill Johnson (R-Ohio),  Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Brian Mast (R-Fla.), Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and Steve Watkins (R-Kan.) for their service.

Though no longer on the front lines, these members continue to serve and protect the well-being of their veteran colleagues by addressing the mental health crisis plaguing the military community. The National Council for Behavioral Health estimates that 30 percent of active duty and reserve military personnel who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition requiring treatment — approximately 730,000 men and women, with many experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression. Additionally, the Veterans Affairs National Suicide Data Report (2005-2016) reported more than 72,000 veteran suicides over a 12-year period.

This is an incomprehensible epidemic, yet less than 50 percent of veterans suffering from mental health conditions receive the treatment they need.  

Last week, the House passed bipartisan legislation that addresses these staggering statistics with thoughtful solutions:

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  • By unanimous consent, the House passed the Whole Veteran Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). If signed into law, this bill potentially could expand the Veterans Health Administration’s range of treatments to include holistic health practices that could be safer, more effective alternatives to traditional drugs. This means treatments that focus on mind-body health such as acupuncture, meditation and even yoga could be made more accessible for veterans to address their personal mental health needs.
  • The Support for Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act, introduced by Reps. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) and Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), would require the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to do a full review of the suicide prevention staff in order to better equip them with the resources they need to provide veterans with the best care.
  • Additionally, the House overwhelmingly passed the FIGHT Veteran Suicides Act. This would require the VA to notify Congress within seven days of any suicide or attempted suicide in a VA facility, and notify within 60 days of the veteran’s background and use of VA health care. Regulation such as this ultimately helps lawmakers better understand risk factors and work toward preventing veteran suicides.

According to the VA, veterans who have regular contact with VA health services are less likely to commit suicide than those with little or no interaction. These initiatives will improve the effectiveness of VA health care so that the agency can be more effective in ensuring that veterans have access to the care they deserve.

The passage of these three bills alone exemplifies how working across the aisle is the most successful way of reaching pragmatic solutions for not only military veterans but all Americans. We urge Congress to continue to lead by this example, put partisan politics aside and unite in the fight to better our country.

Sarah Chamberlain is president and CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership, a coalition of more than 70 members of Congress. Follow her on Twitter @MainStreetSarah.