In a speech last week to military veterans and medical students at Virginia Commonwealth University, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that U.S. medical schools will be increasing their efforts to educate future doctors in treating mental-health issues affecting America’s new wave of combat veterans.
The First Lady’s remarks and the associated educational program represent progress in improving public awareness of the challenges facing the hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). But while attention to psychological disorders affecting our veterans is at an all-time high, action in the form of legislation has been painfully slow. Despite whatever good intentions may exist, Congress is failing in its obligation to provide for injured veterans in the timely fashion they deserve.
Congress has in fact passed some notable legislation aimed directly at improving mental health care and quality of life for combat veterans. The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 provides financial support for family members of injured veterans who are now responsible for caring for their loved ones who have returned with lifelong disabilities. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act provides tax credits for businesses hiring veterans and is an important step in working to lower the alarmingly high veterans unemployment rate. Congress should be recognized for its work on these bills, but it also may be fairly criticized for its inability to do more.
While the existing legislation provides improved care for those already receiving benefits for their disability, the struggle many affected veterans face just to have their condition recognized as service-related still begs to be addressed. The COMBAT PTSD Act has died in two previous sessions of Congress and remains in committee in the current legislative session. As it stands today, a veteran must be deemed to have had “combat with the enemy” to be entitled to compensation for mental health conditions. What constitutes “combat with the enemy” is extremely vague, making it difficult for some veterans suffering from PTSD to have their injury recognized by the VA. The constant threat of attack during a deployment can be more than enough to inflict psychological trauma without the occurrence of any “combat” as it is currently defined.
The COMBAT PTSD Act would broaden the definition to include all veterans who served in a theater of combat operation during a time of war. As this bill languishes in Congress, thousands of affected veterans are fighting the VA to receive benefits for psychological injuries sustained during their service overseas. It is difficult to think of an acceptable excuse for such a situation.
The COMBAT PTSD Act is representative of many other initiatives that Congress continues to ignore. The creation of additional bonuses and incentives for behavioral health professionals within the DoD and VA system would help improve retention rates for experienced specialists needed to treat those in need. Civilian clinics and their physicians, who are responsible for treating combat stress-related injuries for the millions of veterans who receive care outside of the VA system, would benefit greatly from additional training. The inclusion of cognitive behavioral therapy in treatments covered by TRICARE for veterans diagnosed with TBI would improve the affordability of crucial rehabilitative care for thousands of veterans.
While the First Lady's announcement at VCU recognizes an important step in the right direction, it also reminds us of how much remains to be done.
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