Senators Call for Action to Improve Veterans’ Mental Health Care

April 30, 2008, Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a senior member of the Committee, held a press conference today to call for improved mental health care for veterans.  Akaka and Murray were joined by Joe Violante, National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans and Ralph Ibson, Vice President for Governmental Affairs at Mental Health America. 

“Too many veterans return from combat with physical and invisible wounds.  Most receive care to treat the physical problems, but many do not receive the care they need for psychological trauma.  Far too many service members fear that disclosing mental health concerns will hurt their career.  We must engage in a national effort to identify and reach out to returning service members and veterans at risk for severe mental health problems.  No expense can be spared to find and help those suffering from the invisible wounds of war.  We must treat veterans’ mental health care as what it is: a cost of war,” said Akaka.   Chairman Akaka renewed his call for prompt action on S. 2162, the Mental Health Care and Other Improvements Act of 2008, a bipartisan mental health and substance abuse bill currently pending in the Senate.  S. 2162 would improve veterans’ mental health and substance abuse care, enhance mental health outreach, and improve VA research on the invisible wounds of war. 

Senator Murray stated, “We all agree that the VA is the best possible place for our veterans to receive the mental health care they need and deserve.  But in order for the VA to work for our veterans, VA leadership must be honest about their needs.”

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) stated, “Thousands of veterans out there are suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues and are at risk of suicide.  This is a genuine crisis, and it requires an urgent, stepped-up response from the VA. Yet recent reports have shown us that it’s going to require another act of Congress to make the VA acknowledge and pursue this problem. Our bill is very straightforward, and it will be simple and inexpensive to implement. I hope we can move forward with this vital measure immediately.” Senator Harkin planned to attend today’s event, but was unable to participate due to action on the farm bill.

Joe Violante of Disabled American Veterans stated, “The Disabled American Veterans has a growing concern about the effects of wartime exposures on our newest generation of veterans.  Fortunately, however, under the leadership of Chairman Akaka and Senator Murray, veterans’ health care has become a priority of this Congress.  Not only has the Department of Veterans Affairs been provided the resources necessary to care for the medical needs of our sick and disabled veterans, but both Senators Akaka and Murray have introduced legislation, S. 2162 and S. 2799, respectively, to address the mental health care needs of veterans.  DAV applauds both of them for their long-standing commitment to veterans.”

Ralph Ibson of Mental Health America stated, “While dedicated VA professionals are making a profound difference in the lives of many veterans with war-related mental health problems, it is equally clear that VA is not reaching huge numbers of those vets. Given the prevalence of PTSD alone, and the tragic experience with not treating such disorders, we call on VA to mount a vigorous peer-to-peer outreach program to ensure that all returning veterans get needed counseling and mental health treatment.  We applaud Chairman Akaka and Senator Murray for their leadership in placing a spotlight on these invisible wounds of war.”

Today’s press conference followed last week’s call from Akaka and Murray for the resignation of VA’s top mental health official, after reports that he was involved in an attempt to cover-up the number of veterans attempting suicide. 

Akaka said, “Recent missteps illustrate the gaps in mental health care, and the entire VA system needs to respond immediately to ensure that all veterans receive the care they need.”

Senator Murray said, “At a time when the VA needs to be restoring the faith of our veterans and the American public, the apparent cover-up of rising suicide rates undermines that effort.  The VA’s top priority should be caring for our veterans, not covering up the truth.”

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