Walter Reed Problems Spark VA/Defense Department Mental Health Bills

May 1, 2007

Congressional embarrassment over shoddy care received by veterans at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center has stimulated passage of 2 House bills addressing veterans' mental health care.

Congressional embarrassment over shoddy care received by veterans at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center has stimulated passage of 2 House bills addressing veterans' mental health care. Separate Senate budget moves, which tack additional spending onto the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) budget in both fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2008 that could pay for those House initiatives, will probably pass as well.

One bill (HR 327) requiring the VA to adopt new suicide prevention measures passed the House on March 21 by a vote of 423 to 0. A second bill (HR 612) would lengthen the time during which returning soldiers can obtain free health care, screenings, and referrals from 2 years to 5. This move is intended particularly to help veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems, because symptoms do not always become evident immediately. That second bill had not been passed by the House at the end of March, but was on the cusp of approval.

At the same time that the suicide prevention bill was passing in the House, Senate Democrats were holding a press conference to announce they wanted to add $3.5 billion to President Bush's request for VA medical care in fiscal 2008, which begins on September 1, 2007. Sen Patty Murray (D, Wash) said, "As we begin the fifth year of this war, the lack of administration spending on our nation's veterans is everywhere you look. Whether it is veterans struggling to get mental health care, long waiting lines for initial benefits claims, or a lack of focus on TBI [traumatic brain injury] care, we are seeing what happens when veterans' care does not get the funding it deserves."

The House and Senate, too, were rushing to add additional VA and Department of Defense mental health funds to President Bush's supplemental 2007 budget request, whose main purpose is to fund US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the House supplemental included $450 million for PTSD/Counseling for military members and $100 million to allow the VA to contract with private mental health care providers to offer assistance to veterans, including National Guard and Reserve members.

Mental health care for veterans has become a big issue. "Suicide is a huge, critical issue, and it's growing," said Paul Rieckhoff, president of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.