May 28, 2008, Missoula, MT – Senator Barack Obama released a report today on the major difficulties faced by Montana veterans in obtaining treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and outlined a broad agenda of investments and reforms to improve Montana’s VA services.
“When I first began working on this issue, I scanned the players at the federal level for potential allies in the fight. It didn’t take me long to realize that Barack Obama has been one of our nation’s veterans strongest supporters since the moment he arrived in the Senate. As someone who has lost a family member to a PTSD suicide, I was particularly touched when he reached across party lines to cosponsor the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Bill to improve screening and treatment for at-risk veterans.
“I was honored to help Senator Obama develop a program to help the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) care for Montana’s injured veterans. Barack Obama understands that the combination of Montana’s size, sparse population, and high percentage of veterans creates unique challenges; but that these challenges to not relieve our nation of its duty to provide effective treatment to our injured heroes,” said Matt Kuntz, a West Point Graduate and Army infantry veteran. Kuntz is a prominent Montana veterans advocate who advised the Obama campaign in preparing the report. The full text of the report is attached.
Key findings of the report include:
• Despite the growing number of PTSD cases, the VA Medical Center in Montana spent just 6 percent of its health care resources on mental health in 2006. Out of 138 facilities nationwide, it ranked 123rd.
• Among Montana veterans with mental health problems, only 56 percent were treated by a specialist in 2006 – the second-lowest rate in the nation. The problem is compounded by the overwhelmingly rural landscape of Montana – and the great distances many Montana veterans have to travel to get help.
• Recent veterans in Montana with mental health problems receive far lower payments from the VA disability system than veterans in almost any other state.
• The VA office in Montana is less likely than any other office in the country to rate recent veterans as 50 percent or more disabled because of PTSD.
Senator Obama believes that the unique challenges that veterans in Montana face in getting access to PTSD treatment demands the attention of our nation’s leaders at the highest level. As president, he will ensure that VA system in Montana will get the oversight, direction and resources required to meet our solemn obligation to Montana’s veterans. The agenda he outlined today includes:
• Providing full funding to the VA – including additional resources to improve care at the VA Hospital at Fort Harrison. He will also devote more resources to the community-based outpatient clinics in Kalispell, Anaconda, Missoula, Glendive, Great Falls, Bozeman, Billings, Miles City and Glasgow.
• Launching a major effort to recruit and train mental health professionals at VA facilities across Montana. Obama believes we need additional counselors to reduce waiting lists and provide care to veterans and their families in their own communities.
• Improving training throughout the military and requiring a mental health screening for every Montana veteran when they return from deployment. Experts believe mandatory screenings are critical because of the stigma attached to asking for help, or the fact that people might not realize the problem before it is too late
• Providing additional resources to develop more Vet Centers like those in Billings and Missoula – which are often the first line of defense for veterans to get help in their communities by offering counseling for vets and their families.
• Directing his Secretary of Veterans Affairs to launch an investigation into Montana’s VA and other cases like it where there are clear disparities in the provision of veterans’ benefits for PTSD. He will direct the VA to ensure that the system is both accurate and fair to our nation’s veterans. Montana’s VA office has been the least likely in the country to grant these certifications.
The plan also includes steps to combat homelessness among our veterans, reduce the claims backlog, ensure that veterans can make the transition back to civilian life – and many other important reforms.
More than 1,200 Montanans have served in Iraq, including seven units of the Montana National Guard.