Vets don’t need health battle

Seacoast Online

Editor’s note: Chellie Pingree, from North Haven, is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Maine’s First Congressional District. James E. N. Bachelder from Acton is Maine state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

It was just about a year ago that the nation was shocked by a Washington Post story that revealed the dismal conditions inside the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Over 700 active duty soldiers with serious physical and psychological issues were being warehoused in rundown buildings, neglected and lost in a tangle of bureaucracy without access to the care they desperately needed.

Once again, America was caught not living up to the promise we have made to the men and women who serve — that we will take care of you when you come home.

Some progress has been made, but there is much more that needs to be done, especially for veterans who have completed their service and are ready to come home. They’ve fought for us; now it’s our turn to stand up and fight for them.

Maine has one of the highest percentages of veterans of any state in the country. Over 140,000 Mainers have worn a uniform. Nearly 90 percent of the Maine National Guard has been deployed to Iraq, and too many of them have come home bearing the scars of combat.

According to a new government study, the rate of suicide among those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan has increased substantially. And over half of those who took their own lives were members of the Guard or Reserves.

Better and faster emergency care on the battlefield means more and more servicemen and servicewomen are surviving, but improvements in the availability of mental health treatment have not kept pace.

It’s estimated that 30 percent to 40 percent of all Iraq veterans will face some sort of mental health issue when they come home, and although the VA provides some of the best care in the world, it simply doesn’t have the resources to adequately address those problems. In the current system, less than 40 percent of vets with psychological conditions are getting the treatment they need.

The first step to address this need is a thorough and confidential health-care assessment for all returning veterans. And those who need help making the transition back home should get it. The Maine National Guard has taken this step, but the VA should be able to make it available to all returning servicemen and women. Too often the health care and benefits that veterans have earned are buried under a mountain of paperwork and kept out of reach by bureaucratic delays. Too often, when a vet comes home from war unable to work because of disabilities, a long delay in awarding disability leads to homelessness.

Sometimes the wounds inflicted in a combat zone aren’t very visible. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are real injuries that affect tens of thousands of veterans. The diagnosis isn’t always easy, but rules and regulations shouldn’t make it more difficult.

Congressman Tom Allen has introduced a bill that would remove certain requirements that have been keeping veterans suffering from PTSD from getting the treatment they needed. Simply put, if a health-care professional determines a veteran returning from war is suffering from PTSD, that diagnosis will be enough, without requiring documentation that is often difficult or impossible to obtain.

Because the VA budget is discretionary, not mandatory, reliable funding is hard to come by, which leads to delays and cutbacks. Injured veterans are denied the benefits they deserve and they end up paying the price. Complicated forms and a difficult-to-navigate application and appeals process make it worse. The VA budget should be made mandatory and the treatment and benefits process streamlined. Veterans should be able get the help they need without having to fight for it.

Congressman Mike Michaud has been an effective and outspoken advocate for veterans and in addition to cosponsoring Congressman Allen’s proposal. Last summer, he introduced a bill that would start to fix some of the problems that vets face. The Veterans Health Care Improvement Act would not only improve access to care and benefits, but it would also commit significant resources to helping those who have slipped through the cracks — like the 200,000 veterans around this country who will sleep on the street tonight.

Both of us have friends and neighbors who have come home from war only to find they have to fight another battle to get the care and benefits they need. We can and must do a better job taking care of these men and women. They deserve it.

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