Armed Forces Parade

Members of the U.S. Air Force salute as the USS Haddo Base chapter of the United States Submarine Veterans float passes by during the 70th annual Armed Forces Day Parade on Friday, May 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

Sgt. 1st Class Ian Harding joined the Army in 2003 after graduating from high school. In 2006, he was injured on a night mission in Baghdad. For the most part he has physically recovered from his injuries, but it’s the post-traumatic stress that he still manages every day.

Sadly, Harding is not alone.

At any given time, as many as 540,000 post-9/11 veterans have symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder or other symptoms known as the invisible wounds of war. When I met Harding at the recent George W. Bush Institute Warrior Open Golf tournament, he put his recovery in very simple terms: “Post-traumatic stress is a 24/7 job.”

Yes, significant resources have been devoted to understanding the impact of these wounds and generating solutions. Yet the reality is that too many veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq face challenges in accessing quality mental health care.

As a result, veterans experience steady rates of depression, suicide and other debilitating mental illnesses. If these veterans cannot get to and benefit from the care they deserve, our nation will experience social and financial impacts for generations. After all, these are the leaders of our communities, schools, businesses and country that we will need for many decades.

Unfortunately, outdated policies, rules and regulations often stand in the way of them getting quality mental health care. The challenges stem in part from federal government policies and Department of Veterans Affairs regulations that limit meaningful public-private partnerships and innovative solutions. Those policies and regulations often limit the depth and breadth of the partnerships that can benefit veterans.

To deal with this reality, in 2018 Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed legislation that directs the VA to consolidate all disparate private sector health care programs into one. The VA MISSION Act’s goal is to integrate community health care providers with the VA, improve access to care, and expand the health care options available to veterans. President Trump also signed an executive order to establish a strategy across the public and private sectors to help prevent veteran suicide.

However, the timeline for implementation is rapid and data indicates that community providers are not prepared to successfully care for our nation’s veterans. While the House and the Senate have held a series of hearings on the MISSION Act as well as on veterans’ mental health and suicide prevention, a focus on solutions seems to be missing. Congress and the VA should use this opportunity to identify innovative solutions to meet veterans’ mental health care needs and take steps to assure veterans will receive quality mental health care in the community.

The VA, Department of Defense and philanthropic organizations have funded education and training resources for community providers, but dissemination of the material has not been prioritized. Congress and the VA should create incentive programs that encourage community providers to take advantage of these training resources. An incentive like providing higher reimbursement for delivering evidence-based care to veterans could be a huge benefit to those who need mental health care.

And while implementing this law, the VA should work with community providers to focus on the outcomes of their care. Focusing on results would not only benefit veterans but produce a more cost-effective mental health delivery system.

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Research indicates that veterans who received evidence-based care made fewer trips to the doctor the next year. This means they are in better health, which is the ultimate goal. At the same time, the government saves money.

Congress and the VA can also remove policies limiting the private sector from delivering telehealth care. Currently, 60 percent of counties in the United States do not have a psychiatrist. We will never train enough providers to address this gap. Regulations preventing the delivery of telehealth care across the country must be removed to increase veterans’ access to quality mental health care.

The enduring health of our veterans is a national security issue, and we can and must better address the invisible wounds of war effectively.

These actions will lead to positive outcomes for veterans like Harding and their families. Most importantly, it will improve our warriors’ quality of life and enable them to lead our businesses, communities and country for decades to come.

Kacie Kelly is deputy director of the George W. Bush Institute Military Service Initiative.

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