Order calls for interagency cooperation on veterans' mental health

Tuesday - 9/4/2012, 5:33am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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President Obama signed an executive order Friday telling the Department of Veterans Affairs to add more personnel to respond to the mental health needs of veterans and telling other agencies to help, an effort to fight a rising tide of suicides in the military services.

Among its many provisions, the order tells VA to boost the capacity of its veterans' crisis hotline by 50 percent and to ensure that a veteran who identifies him or herself as in emotional distress gets seen by a mental health professional within 24 hours.

"I know you join me in saying to everyone who's worn the uniform, if you're hurting, it's not a sign of weakness to seek help. It's a sign of strength," Obama told soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, just after signing the order on Friday. "We're here to help you stay strong. That's the commitment I'm making to you."

The order also tells the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services and Education to develop a national research action plan to improve early diagnosis and treatment capabilities for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. DoD and HHS will also undertake a comprehensive nationwide study on mental health to improve treatment outcomes.

Upward trend of suicides among servicemembers

The White House announcement comes amid an upward trend of suicides among servicemembers, both on active duty and in the reserve component. The Army alone reported a spike of 38 potential suicides in July — double the month before.

"We are now having more deaths from suicide than in combat losses," said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, chief of the Army Reserve, in a recent interview with Federal News Radio. "All the leaders of the Army are working every day to defeat that enemy. But there's no simple solution and there's no silver bullet."

While there's no silver bullet, everyone agrees there's a shortage of mental health professionals who are trained and ready to address mental health issues when they arise among servicemembers and veterans. The order tries to address that problem by telling VA to use HHS' network of private mental health providers that receive grants.

VA has already committed to hiring an additional 1,600 mental health professionals and 300 support staff, but has struggled to train and place new staff, especially in rural areas.

"Staffing is one of the major issues VA has as far as meeting veterans' mental health needs," said Brian Bertges, a rehabilitation policy expert at the American Legion. "At one point, VA claimed that 95 percent of the people that needed to be screened for mental health were seen within 14 days. In reality, it was about 64 percent."

Veterans groups mostly pleased with executive order

Still, Bertges and other veterans' service organizations were largely pleased with the White House's order.

"Long, repeat deployments through more than a decade of war have taken an immeasurable toll on our nation's newest generation of heroes," said John Hamilton, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We have an obligation to care for these brave men and women when they return from the front lines, and we think this executive order will be a critical step in fulfilling that obligation."

The order mirrors some recent legislative proposals sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and other lawmakers. Those proposals have not passed the full Congress. Putting them in the form of an executive order allows them to take effect more quickly, but lacks the ability to appropriate additional money to pay for the programs.

"There are a lot of competing interests for resources. If Congress doesn't fully fund the VA or the DoD in reference to these initiatives, yeah, there's a possibility none of this will ever happen," Bertges said. "But understanding the president's directive in this executive order, I think agencies are going to do everything in their power to make this happen."

There's no immediate prospect for extra VA funding next year. Congress is expected to pass a continuing resolution that will simply extend this year's funding levels for all government agencies into 2013. On the bright side, the Office of Management and Budget says the $1.2 trillion in automatic 10-year budget cuts that could happen at the end of the year under sequestration won't directly apply to veterans' benefits.

But Obama told soldiers at Fort Bliss that Congress needs to act to make sure sequestration doesn't cut funding for the rest of the government's programs, including the military.

"There's no reason those cuts should happen," he said. "Folks in Congress ought to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong. That's a pledge that we need to make to you."

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