Point of View

Time to give our veterans mental health care they deserve

July 10, 2014 

North Carolina is home to over 769,000 veterans, men and women who have sacrificed for our country and deserve timely access to care rather than the months-long waits for appointments and falsified logs of wait times. It’s time for urgent action to right these wrongs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Legislation is moving through both chambers of Congress that would make sorely needed reforms in the VA’s delivery of health care services. The bills that the House and Senate are working on are good efforts that have garnered bipartisan support. But the legislation should go further. Our leaders in Washington, including U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, have an opportunity to ensure that the significant mental health needs of our veterans are not overlooked.

No matter their branch of service, their age or their background, our veterans face significant challenges, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. These mental health issues are real, serious and sadly too often undiagnosed or untreated. Sometimes they are even deadly: We know that, across the country every year, about 8,000 vets take their own lives – 22 on average each day. These preventable deaths are happening right here in North Carolina, though they may not make headlines.

The long wait times should not be tolerated, but they are not the full picture. In fact, most veterans simply do not receive adequate treatment for mental illness or substance-use disorders for another reason: a persistent shortfall of psychiatric physicians in the VA system to meet the need. The Office of the Inspector General for the VA wrote, in 2013, that the department’s “greatest challenge has been to hire and retain psychiatrists.” But there’s hope if our nation equips the VA with recruitment tools that other top employers have.

The VA, because of how current law is written, isn’t able to compete with other federal departments and private-sector employers in attracting talent. Employment incentives, like medical education loan repayment, are a potent recruitment tool for new hires, including psychiatrists. Currently, in North Carolina, only two psychiatric vacancies statewide are eligible for loan forgiveness. What’s the solution?

The Ensuring Veterans’ Resiliency Act is bipartisan and was introduced by Reps. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) and David Scott (D-Ga.) and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). We strongly support it. While the legislation is in many ways modest, it provides exactly the tool the VA needs: implementation of a pilot project in which the VA recruits a limited number of psychiatrists into long-term employment with competitive medical school loan forgiveness incentives. This bill complements the VA reforms that Congress is considering, so when leaders from both chambers work to reconcile their bills into one, we urge that EVRA is part of the agreement.

Every one of North Carolina’s veterans pledged to defend our country, and now Congress has a chance to defend them – by passing comprehensive reforms to the VA health care system. Their mental health needs cannot and should not be overlooked, and a proper workforce is a part of delivering on that promise. EVRA does just that.

Burt Johnson, M.D., is president of the North Carolina Psychiatric Association.

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