Mental health funds sought


Many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with the transition to civilian life, say lawmakers who want Congress to give more funding for veterans’ mental health services.

Rep. Lane Evans. D-Ill., introduced legislation in April that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to add more clinical teams, family therapists and other full-time staff at veterans health facilities.

“If estimates hold, we can expect at least 17 percent of those men and women returning from deployment in Iraq to have a post-deployment mental health issue,” Evans said. “We need to be quicker in intervening with those service members now deployed.”

One out of four veterans treated at Veterans Affairs hospitals in the past 16 months have been diagnosed with mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and general anxiety, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study released in March.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is among 49 co-sponsors of the Evans bill.

“We are already seeing large numbers of service members returning from Iraq and other combat zones who are showing signs of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Berkley, the ranking Democrat on a House subcommittee that oversees veterans health claims.

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., a former Veterans Affairs psychologist, periodically visits soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

“Their lives have changed in devastating ways, which they may never recover,” Baird said.

Baird said the Congressional Budget Office is still determining how much funding would be needed to make more resources available.

“It will not be cheap,” Baird said. “We spent money as if it was water over there (in Iraq). If we’re willing to spend billions of dollar on high-tech weaponry and building Iraq’s infrastructure, we ought to be helping our troops.”

Berkley said disparities exist among VA regional offices when it comes to rating mental health disabilities and qualifying payments for veterans with post-traumatic stress.

Berkley said the Veterans Affairs regional office in Reno gives full disability benefits to 18 percent of veterans with service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder.

By comparison, she said, the VA in Wilmington, Del., approves 34 percent, while the office in Lincoln, Neb., qualifies only 10 percent.

“As we have learned from the aftermath of Vietnam, timely intervention and access to mental health services can prevent a chronic reaction to stress,” Berkley said.

Jim Benson, a Veterans Affairs spokesman, said 6,386 newly returned soldiers have sought assistance through Veterans Affairs for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“That number only represents 2.8 percent of the 224,879 veterans treated annually by VA for PTSD,” Benson said.

He said Veterans Affairs officials are keeping an eye on the mental health needs of returning soldiers, but the “numbers aren’t overwhelming.”

Last month, the Senate voted 46-54 against adding $2 billion to the fiscal 2005 budget for veterans’ health care. The sum included $525 million for mental health care.

A Republican leader said the additional spending was unnecessary.

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