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Pres. Obama Signs Executive Order to Improve Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans

Last week, President Obama issued an executive order directing key federal departments to improve access to mental health services for military veterans and their families. Expanded services will include access to substance abuse programs and increased suicide prevention measures.

Many of our nation’s sons and daughters who took up a call to arms have returned home with hidden battle scars that leave them incapable of securing employment in a rough economy.

Nearly two years after he announced a formal end to combat operations in Iraq, President Obama praised the troops and their families at Ft. Bliss, Texas for a job well done. He promised that we as a nation would not forget their dedication as they return to peaceful pastures:

“Just as we give you the best equipment and technology on the battlefield, we need to give you the best support and care when you come home.”

Among the changes made by Obama’s executive order are an increase in the number of Veterans Affairs mental health providers and enhanced access to mental health care. From the White House fact sheet:

In service areas where VA has faced challenges in hiring and placing mental health service providers and continues to have unfilled vacancies or long wait times, the Executive Order Directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to work with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish at least 15 pilot sites. In pilot sites, VA will contract with community health centers, community mental health clinics, community substance abuse treatment facilities and other HHS grantees and community resources to help reduce VA mental health waiting lists.

Under the Executive Order, HHS and VA will develop a plan for a rural mental health recruitment initiative to promote opportunities for VA and rural communities to share mental health providers when demand is insufficient for either to support a full-time provider.

Under the Executive Order, VA will hire 800 peer-to-peer support counselors to empower veterans to support other veterans and help ensure that their mental health care and overall service needs are met.

VA has launched an effort to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals to serve veterans. The Executive Order directs VA to use its pay-setting authorities, loan repayment and scholarships, partnerships with health care workforce training programs, and collaborative arrangements with community-based providers to recruit, hire, and place 1,600 mental health professionals by June, 2013. Since, 2009, the VA has expanded its mental health programs, hiring more than 3,500 mental health professionals since 2009.

As part of a mission to battle Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), President Obama acknowledged that extended deployments have put heavy levels of stress on many veterans. At Ft. Bliss he strongly urged veterans and their families to come forward and ask for help, noting that there is no reason they should have to go through their struggles alone.

“We know that deployment increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” he says. “So it’s going to be really important for veterans listening out there and their family members and friends to come forward and ask for help.”

I know that you join me in saying to everyone who’s ever worn the uniform, if you’re hurting, it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help. It’s a sign of strength,” Obama said. “We’re here to help you stay strong. Army strong. That’s a commitment I’m making to you.”

The commitment includes promoting mental health research in hopes of finding more efficient strategies to beat back PTSD. The executive order calls for the launch of a Military and Veterans Mental Health Interagency Task Force, a government wide collaboration of affected agencies:

The Executive Order directs the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to develop a National Research Action Plan that will include strategies to improve early diagnosis and treatment effectiveness for TBI and PTSD.

The Executive Order further directs the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a comprehensive mental health study with an emphasis on PTSD, TBI, and related injuries to develop better prevention, diagnosis, and treatment options.

The Executive Order establishes an Interagency Task Force, including the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, the Domestic Policy Council, National Security Staff, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which will make recommendations to the President on additional strategies to improve mental health and substance abuse treatment services for veterans, service members, and their families.

A commitment to provide the best mental health care to returning veterans is a strong investment in rebuilding both the middle class and the American dream. Kudos to the President for taking this action on behalf of men and women who sacrificed their physical and mental health to defend us abroad.


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