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Congressional negotiators are weighing whether a Senate-passed proposal to make current service members and their families eligible for counseling at Vet Centers could end up hurting those who have already left the military.
Allowing active and reserve service members and their immediate families to receive mental health counseling from the more than 350 Vet Centers operating across the U.S. would make counseling more available to them, especially if they don't live close to a military base, or if a service member feels uncomfortable seeking on-base care.
However, a shortage of mental health professionals already makes it difficult for the Veterans Affairs Department to provide initial mental health evaluations for veterans within the required 14 days, and has created delays in getting follow-up appointments.
VA is aggressively seeking to recruit 1,600 additional mental professionals by June, but that would barely cover the existing shortfall and might not be enough to handle a major increase in patients.
Negotiators from the House and Senate armed services committees who are working to write a compromise version of the 2013 defense authorization bill are considering VA mental health capacity as they look at two Senate-passed proposals to expand VA coverage.
The Senate proposal would open mental health counseling at the 350 Vet Centers to current service members who served in a combat theater, as well as to some people who served outside the combat zone but provided emergency medical care to wounded troops, were involved in mortuary services, or were pilots of remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles involved in combat.
In addition to both active and reserve members, immediate family members also would be eligible for Vet Center counseling under the proposal. Family members are defined in the Senate provision as parents and extended family members, such as siblings, who do not traditionally receive military-provided care. Spouses, children and step-children also would be covered, under the Senate bill.
Also included is a separate mental health benefit for immediate family members of troops deployed in support of a contingency operation. They would be eligible for mental health care at VA facilities via telemental health programs or community, nonprofit or private facilities under VA contract. This provision, however, says family mental health care would be provided only if it does not interfere with care for veterans and if resources are available.
The target date for completion of negotiations on the defense bill is Tuesday, according to congressional aides involved in the talks.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairwoman, pushed the Senate to add the VA provision to the defense budget as a way to reduce the number of military and veteran suicides.
"We know our service members and veterans have faced unprecedented challenges: multiple deployments, difficulty finding a job here at home, and isolation in their communities," Murray said. "While the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have taken important steps toward addressing this crisis, we know more must be done.
"We know that any solution depends upon reducing wait times and improving access to mental health care, ensuring proper diagnosis, and achieving true coordination of care and information between the departments."
At Murray's urging, the Senate bill also includes a requirement for a standardized defense-wide suicide prevention program.