bill gaining speed on the Hill aims to make changes within the VA's mental health care system that proponents hope will reduce the veteran suicide epidemic.
It is no secret that the veteran suicide rate is extremely high, with 22 veterans per day taking their own lives. It's also no secret that health care in general, and mental health care in particular, is lacking in the VA health care system. Unfortunately, the VA is the only option that many veterans have for their care.
A new bill, called the "Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act," is currently being considered in the U.S. Senate with a version also in the House. The bill is named after Clay Hunt, a Marine Cpl. who committed suicide in 2011 after battling PTSD and depression following multiple combat tours. Hunt's mother, Susan Selke, addressed the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in November, urging lawmakers to pass the bill named for her son.
Currently working its way through Congress, the Clay Hunt bill would impose a number of changes to VA mental health care.
The most massive task that is mandated in the bill is a complete review of all current mental health care programs, including the suicide prevention programs already in place. These programs have little effect on the numbers of veteran suicides, as the rate has remained virtually constant for years.
The Clay Hunt bill would also create a pilot program that would repay student loans for new psychiatrists and counselors. The bill's sponsors are hoping that this provision would help attract more doctors of a higher quality to the VA
Currently, the mental health care system within the VA is stretched as thin as possible. This means that often veterans who need weekly visits with counselors are not able to be seen more that once a month and the VA depends heavily on psychiatric medications that are only partially effective without other therapies.
"Clay constantly voiced concerns about the care he was receiving, both in terms of the challenges he faced with scheduling appointments as well as the treatment he received for his post-traumatic stress which consisted primarily of medication," Selke told the committee.
"Not one more veteran should have to go through what Clay went through with the VA after returning home from war," she said.But sadly, many more have experienced exactly the same problems upon returning home.
Valerie Pallotta, the mother of Army National Guard Pfc. Joshua Pallotta, also addressed the Veterans Affairs Committee. Pfc. Pallotta committed suicide just two months ago, and the sense of loss, disbelief, and grief his family feels was evident in his mother's words.
"Our minds are at the funeral home, crying on our son's body as it lays cold ... our minds are at the veterans cemetery in Randolph, Vermont, the place our son was laid to rest, a place we haven't been able to visit," Pallotta told committee members.
"His death certificate should have stated the cause of death as PTSD/TBI, not from a self-inflicted wound," she said.
The Clay Hunt bill would also examine discharge characteristics for individuals with PTSD to ensure that those with PTSD aren't dishonorably discharged for problems related to their PTSD and thus keep them from getting treatment at the VA. It would also establish a drug take-back program and allow the VA to work with veterans service organizations to help prevent suicides.
While this bill aims to make strides in mental health care, there are those who are critical of some of the provisions. In particular, there are some who question repaying student loans for new providers.
According to The Warriors' Hope Project, only 16 percent of veterans believe the treatment they currently receive at the VA has been effective at treating their PTSD symptoms, which consists primarily of medication. The Warriors' Hope Project asserts that the money that would be spent on this program could be better used in other ways, instead of paying for more psychiatrists to prescribe more medications.
According to The Warriors' Hope Project, while both the Senate and House versions of the bill contain important provisions, neither go far enough to have a substantive impact on PTSD or veteran suicide.
The most important recommendation The Warriors' Hope Project makes is to expand access to mental health care in the private sector. This would mean that veterans can seek out whatever help they feel is most beneficial to them and with whatever provider they are comfortable with.
Currently if a veteran wants to use a provider in the civilian world, they must pay for it out-of-pocket.
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