A better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans

A better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans
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In our nation’s history, more than 1 million American servicemembers have been killed in U.S. wars. For the past 151 years on the fourth Monday of May, we have honored the great soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who have fallen.

Much has changed, but the generations of brave men and women willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom have endured, and the sanctity with which we regard these individuals has remained.

There are many millions of veterans, however, who returned home from war to find a country unable to provide them access to basic human rights such as quality civilian employment opportunities, health care and education. In recent years alone, 20.4 million men and women risked their lives for their country and, in return, many were refused fundamental care by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE has renewed the fight for these veterans.

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The VA fell into disarray under the Obama administration. President Obama tried to establish reform with initiatives such as the Veterans Choice Program to expand health care options and reduce wait time for medical appointments to a maximum of 30 days. This policy was great in theory, but in practice the Government Accountability Office found that some veterans waited up to 70 days for care and many died as a result.

Why was this happening? Some VA personnel neglected their duties by falsifying wait times for medical care and ignoring major systemic issues in the medical network with no accountability.

When President Trump took office in 2017, he pledged that the men and women who uphold our country’s freedoms no longer would be ignored by their government. In June 2017, he signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. This legislation resulted in the removal, demotion or suspension of more than 4,000 employees who exhibited substandard performance. By weeding out the under-performers, veterans have been left with a better-functioning VA.

The Trump administration continues to move forward with efforts to expand VA accountability like the implementation of the “Access and Quality Tool,” a platform that allows veterans to view wait times and assess quality-of-care data when choosing health care providers. As a result, wait times have improved and are comparable to the private sector.

There is a prevalence of mental illness in the veteran community that was not effectively addressed under Obama. Thirty one percent of active duty and reserve military personnel who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have experienced some form of mental illness or have reported experiencing a traumatic brain injury, but only 30 percent of those servicemembers will get treatment. The 70 percent who go untreated are forced to cope and, sadly, 22 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States, on average. Substance abuse precedes approximately 30 percent of all veteran suicides and about 20 percent of high-risk behavior deaths.

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The stigma surrounding mental health treatment has created a substantial access gap in coverage, meaning many people who need to be receiving treatment may not be. In an effort to create more accessible options, President Trump secured $73.1 billion in funding for VA mental health services, opioid abuse prevention, suicide prevention and rural veterans’ health initiatives.

Veterans’ choices and access to medical care have expanded with the VA Mission act, making it easier for veterans to find treatment in their own communities and providing access to walk-in clinics for immediate care.

The president also signed an executive order requiring Homeland Security, Defense and Veterans Affairs secretaries to construct a joint plan that affords veterans access to mental health treatment.

The transition from a uniformed life to a civilian one is not easy, but President Trump has worked to ensure that veterans have access to quality job opportunities. The jobless rate for all veterans fell to an 18-year low of 3.5 percent in 2018, from its peak at 9.9 percent in 2011.

President Obama once said, “Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay.” Although that is true, it is with gratitude that we honor the fallen heroes whose bravery and sacrifice has ensured our freedom. Not just this day but every day, we must choose to honor their memory by caring for those soldiers who did return home. As President Trump said, “We will not rest until all of America’s great veterans receive the care they’ve earned through their incredible service and sacrifice to our country.”

Cora Mandy is spokeswoman with America First Action PAC, the primary super PAC dedicated to electing federal candidates who support the agenda of the Trump-Pence administration.