Donnelly: ‘Suicide Rate Among our Military Servicemembers and Veterans is Not Just a Tragedy – It is a Crisis’

Washington, D.C. –U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) yesterday emphasizing the importance of training private, community mental health providers to better treat servicemembers and veterans. Veterans organizations that support Donnelly’s provisions also gave testimony at the SVAC hearing.  

Donnelly said during his testimony, “The suicide rate among our military servicemembers and veterans is not just a tragedy – it is a crisis…I’ve worked over the past three years to advance commonsense, bipartisan legislation to meet that challenge. We took an important step forward last year with the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, which was part of the National Defense Authorization last year. This year, I’m working with several Republican colleagues to advance the “Servicemember and Veterans Mental Health Care Package” – three bills aimed at improving the accessibility and quality of mental health care for vets, servicemembers, and their families…We know more and more veterans each year are going to be seeking care from non-VA providers. We need to be sure as many of those providers as possible are trained to provide high quality care. And we need to give vets tools to help them make decisions on where to seek care, whether or not they are using their VA benefits.” 

Lou Celli, Director of  the Veterans Affairs And Rehabilitation Division of  The American Legion, said, “The American Legion believes by establishing a registry of Non-VA Mental Health Care providers who have been designated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or Department of Defense (DOD) to understand VA/DoD culture is beneficial to the veteran and their family. This bill would ensure there are designated non-VA/DoD mental health providers that are readily available to treat veterans and help to reduce mental health access wait times within the VA Healthcare system.” 

Lauren Augustine, Legislative Associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, “Combating suicide among troops and veterans remains a top priority for IAVA and its members. There is no question that the VA should remain the leading experts on veteran-specific care and services. However, many veterans do choose to seek outside of the VA system. In light of that, IAVA supports the measures outlined in S. 717 to identify non-VA mental health care providers that have military-specific competencies. 

“Fostering a greater awareness of military culture and best practices of care among non-VA providers will increase access to care and strengthen the overall community of care available to veterans, which are two key components in decreasing veteran suicide. Additionally, providing a mechanism for private providers to identify themselves as having military competencies will encourage more providers to gain that knowledge and provide evidence-based treatment to veterans in their communities. There are already several mechanisms in place to aid in a quick and efficient implementation of this program while not increasing the workload of the VA. IAVA encourages the Members of this Committee to recognize the potential benefit of this program and work together to help connect veterans to a valuable network of providers.” 

Donnelly is working to pass bipartisan legislation that would improve mental health care for servicemembers, veterans, and their families. Taking into account how stigma, provider shortages, and budget constraints are impacting when and how veterans and servicemembers seek care, Donnelly is working to improve access to quality mental health care through the expanded use of specially-trained community providers. Donnelly’s Community Provider Readiness Recognition Act (S. 717) is part of his “Servicemember and Veteran Mental Health Care Package” and would create a special designation for private sector, community mental health providers who demonstrate – either through training or past experience – a strong knowledge of military culture and evidence-based therapies for mental health issues common to veterans and servicemembers. It would create a regularly-updated online registry, so veterans and servicemembers can search for these specially-designated community providers in their area. 

In March, Donnelly introduced the “Servicemember and Veteran Mental Health Care Package” (“Care Package”), three bipartisan bills to help expand access to quality mental health care for servicemembers and veterans through both Department of Defense (DoD) and VA facilities, as well as local community providers. Military mental health provisions from the “Care Package” passed the Senate in June as part of the national defense bill and would help ensure that there are a sufficient number of the best trained mental health providers for servicemembers and veterans.  

The “Care Package” would build on the progress made by Donnelly’s Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, which was signed into law late last year and for the first time requires an annual mental health assessment for all servicemembers—Active, Guard, and Reserve. 

Watch Donnelly’s full testimony here.

About Brian Scott

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