February 9, 2009 – Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., turned the tables on Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America on Monday at a Capitol Hill briefing in which the group was pressing lawmakers for help in passing veterans legislation.
McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a close ally of President Barack Obama, instead asked IAVA for their help – with her initiative to improve prevention and treatment programs for alcohol and substance abuse.
IAVA leaders had been talking about their top priorities for the year at the briefing for legislative aides.
Claiming that one-third of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have mental health problems that could make them more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol, McCaskill is pushing for expanded screening and treatment programs to try to catch problems early.
One of her main worries is that many service members who need help are not getting it because the military culture discourages people from admitting problems.
“The notion that getting help is somehow a black mark on your service needs to be changed,” McCaskill said.
That will take concerted effort, she said. During a visit with wounded service members being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., she said she saw “bottles of liquor and pills everywhere, but no signs promoting alcohol or substance abuse counseling services.”
McCaskill’s plea for help in winning more lawmakers’ support for expanded abuse problems fits neatly into IAVA’s legislative agenda.
The veterans group – the first and largest representing current and former service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan – wants a mandatory, confidential face-to-face screening by a mental health professional for every service member returning from combat. To do that, the services would have to find more mental health workers, who are in demand across the country.
IAVA wants more treatment and counseling for suicide prevention and wants troops who seek voluntary counseling for substance abuse to receive confidential help, unless the person providing treatment determines that the command needs to be notified.
IAVA’s top legislative priority is the same as that of other major veterans groups: advance funding for health care programs.
Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA executive director, said health care programs for veterans suffer when Congress is late passing funding bills.
In 19 of the past 22 years, a finding bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs has not been signed into law by the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1, he said. On average, the bill comes three months late, which Rieckhoff said makes it difficult for VA to plan.
“Imaging planning your family’s budget if you didn’t know what your next paycheck will be,” he said. “That is what VA faces right now.”
Obama has backed the concept of advance funding, which would provide appropriations for health care programs one full year in advance. But Obama’s VA secretary, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, said Feb. 4 that providing advanced funding was not his first option for managing VA’s budget.
“My preference would be for a timely budget,” Shinseki told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
He promised to “do my part to get a mature request from VA in to the president in time.”
If passing a budget on time isn’t possible, Shinseki said, “I’m sure there’ll be a discussion about other options.”