Bill would expand VA mental health services

A Senate committee is considering reforms to veterans’ health programs, including family planning services for soldiers with serious injuries.

By Charles Fiegl — Posted July 5, 2012

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A group of senators is seeking to increase access to mental health services for military veterans.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Patty Murray (D, Wash.) has introduced legislation that would require more oversight of federal suicide prevention programs. The bill also would expand mental health coverage to family members of servicemen and women to help them cope with deployments.

“The Dept. of Defense and the [Dept. of Veterans Affairs] are losing the battle against the mental and behavioral wounds of these wars,” she said. “To see that, you don’t need to look any further than the tragic fact that already this year over 150 active duty service members have taken their own lives, or the fact that one veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes.”

The committee held a June 27 hearing to discuss the Mental Health Access to Continued Care and Enhancement of Support Services and several other pieces of legislation. The VA has taken steps to improve access, said Madhulika Agarwal, MD, MPH, the VA deputy undersecretary for health policy and services. For instance, the administration has launched a hiring initiative to increase the number of health professionals to meet demand for mental health services.

“We fully recognize there is no more critical need than effective and timely mental health care,” Dr. Agarwal said.

Another proposed bill would improve VA services for women and families. The bill outlines coverage for assisted reproductive technology and fertility treatment for the spouses of injured soldiers. The Dept. of Defense and Tricare cover advanced fertility treatments to injured soldiers, but the VA’s coverage is more limited, Murray said.

“VA’s services do not even begin to meet the needs of our most seriously injured veterans or their families,” she said.

The panel heard testimony from Tracy Keil of Denver. Keil’s husband, Matt, was shot in the neck while on patrol in Iraq in 2007, leaving him a quadriplegic. After weeks of rehabilitation, the couple discussed the possibility of having children. Doctors suggested in vitro fertilization, but the VA lacked a comprehensive program to cover the service. The couple had to pay out of pocket for fertility treatments, which allowed Keil to give birth to twins in 2010.

The agency is reviewing further health options for fertility care, Dr. Agarwal said. “VA’s goal is to restore the capabilities of veterans with disabilities to the greatest extent possible.”

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