More than a dozen pieces of legislation are being considered by Congress this session that aim to improve veteran mental health care, expand services to more veterans or provide access to new treatments, including medical marijuana.
After four veteran suicides at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities in April alone, and an unchanging rate of 20 veteran suicides per day, Congress and the VA have been under increasing pressure to address veteran mental health and suicide. Lawmakers from both chambers and sides of the aisle have bills piled up for consideration.
The newest of those is the Whole Veteran Act introduced last week by Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Penn., and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. The bill would require the VA to report to Congress with information on the VA’s Whole Health Program, part of the agency’s suicide prevention effort.
“Physical, emotional, and mental health needs are all interconnected, and it is essential that Whole Health programs and treatments focus on the whole veteran instead of concentrating on an isolated condition,” Lamb said in a statement. “This legislation will help identify the current gaps in availability so the VA, along with Congress, can take the adequate steps to improve the mental health and well-being of all our veterans no matter where they live.”
The report to Congress ordered by the bill must include how accessible and available services such as massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, healing touch, guided imagery, meditation, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi or qi gong and others.
“If we're serious about reducing veteran suicide, we must provide veterans access to programs that promote overall mental health and wellness,” Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman said in a statement. “That’s why I’m proud to support Congressman Lamb’s bill that will ensure VA’s holistic health care programming is available and accessible for our veterans regardless of where they live.”
Other bills filed earlier this session to address veteran mental health include:
The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act is an expansive bill to improve transition services; implement more suicide prevention efforts; provide more mental health programs, studies and guidelines; establish further oversight of veterans mental health care; and make improvements to VA mental health medical workforce. The bill was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and has been referred to the Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The Reach Every Veteran in Crisis Act would improve oversight and evaluation of VA mental health and suicide prevention media outreach campaigns after it was previously found that the VA failed to spend money earmarked for suicide prevention outreach.
The Private 1st Class Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act would allow the VA to provide grants to state and local agencies to establish peer-to-peer mental health programs for veterans.
The CARE for Reservists Act would expand eligibility for VA mental health services to include members of the Reserves.
The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act would expand VA health care and benefits for military sexual trauma to include abuse through technology, such as online communication, text messages or GPS software. The bill also would allow military sexual trauma to be sufficient proof that a veteran’s mental health condition was caused or worsened by military sexual trauma during active duty.
The Veteran Overmedication and Suicide Prevention Act would direct the VA to conduct an independent review of the deaths of certain veterans by suicide in an attempt to better understand the deaths and prevent future deaths.
The Veterans Posttraumatic Growth Act would direct the VA to create a program on posttraumatic growth, or how people who experience trauma grow and transform positively. The bill would direct the VA to explore alternative treatments for trauma survivors, focused on posttraumatic growth.
The Expanding Care for Veterans Act would expand research and education on and delivery of “complementary and integrative medicine” to veterans. Complementary and integrative medicine are alternative medical treatments such as acupuncture used in conjunction with mainstream medical care.
The Warrior Wellness Act would direct the Department of Defense to develop a strategy to recruit and retain mental health providers and create medication monitoring programs in the Armed Service branches.
The National Green Alert Act would create a committee on the development of an Amber Alert-like system for at-risk missing veterans.
The Acupuncture for Our Heroes Act would ensure access to acupuncturist services through the VA for veterans.
The Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Bill Mulder Transition Improvement Act aims to streamline the process and improve the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to help veterans, in honor of one who took his own life just months after retiring.
Multiple bills have also been filed or refiled to work to expand medical marijuana access to veterans.