Democrats, veterans press for extended mental-health care for servicemembers

Stars & Stripes

Democrats, veterans press for extended mental-health care for servicemembers

WASHINGTON — More mental health resources are needed to deal with stress from Iraq and Afghanistan now, before those veterans develop even more serious mental problems, according to Democrats and veteran support agencies.

On Thursday both groups lobbied for legislation to increase funding for mental health treatment, to extend health-care coverage for veterans returning from war, and to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a long-term plan for treating troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Over the years and out of necessity the VA has developed some of the best mental health care in the world,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

“Unfortunately, this care is slipping, and it’s occurring at the worst time, when demand for care is about to explode.”

Earlier, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson offered a mixed reaction to a host of Democrat-sponsored bills, voicing support for general plans to improve mental health care but rebuffing most of their legislative efforts.

He said a long-term mental health plan is already being developed by department officials, although no deadline has been set.

Nicholson opposed a measure to expand post-war health care coverage from two years to five years, saying it would needlessly complicate the current system.

But Dennis Cullinan, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said mental health problems can take years to develop, and the extra years of health care coverage “gives these men and women an important safety net, and gives them peace of mind as they return from combat.”

Democrats also called for more funding for the department, estimating it needs between $100 million and $300 million more to adequately deal with current staffing and program shortfalls affecting troops already returning from overseas.

Abbie Pickett, a Wisconsin National Guard soldier who served in Iraq for 14 months, said she has been plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms since she returned in May 2004.

It took her several months before the VA system allowed her to see a psychiatrist, and she hasn’t been able to schedule a monthly follow-up visit since December.

“They told me there’s a long wait,” said Pickett, a part-time student and member of Operation Truth, a veterans advocacy organization. “I’m a part-time student, so all my health care comes through the VA. My medication isn’t being regulated.”

Nicholson said his department is adequately funded. Akaka said the funding shortfall will be even greater once more war on terror vets begin seeking help.

“Hopefully we will not see the chronic PTSD that occurred after Vietnam,” Akaka said. “Dealing with these issues now, and with the best care possible, is what prevents chronic PTSD later.”

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