U.S. must do more to serve war veterans

Billings Gazette

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars made PTSD a household acronym.

The toll that nine years of combat with extended and repeated deployments has taken on hundred of thousands of U.S. service members includes post-traumatic stress disorder.

Montana has been a leader in improving screening for PTSD and other brain disorders among returning National Guardsmen. The Montana model of boosting the quality of post-deployment mental health screening is now being adopted nationwide.

Another leap forward for good mental health comes with the announcement last week that the Department of Veterans Affairs is revising its regulation for PTSD disability and health care eligibility. No longer will veterans have to prove that a particular war incident caused their PTSD.

The VA has reported that around 400,000 U.S. veterans, including 3,250 in Montana, are receiving disability compensation for PTSD.

Montana construction

VA Montana is constructing a new, $6.7 million inpatient treatment facility in Helena to serve veterans suffering with PTSD or with substance abuse. The 24-bed facility is scheduled to open in April, according to Teresa Bell, VA information officer at Fort Harrison.

This project will provide the first VA inpatient treatment for PTSD and substance abuse in Montana. For now, most veterans who need inpatient or residential treatment are referred out of state.

The VA contracts with Montana’s four regional mental health centers for outpatient PTSD and substance abuse treatment. Bell said those contracts with centers based in Billings, Miles City, Great Falls and Missoula will continue after the Helena inpatient facility opens. Also, most of the VA outreach clinics around the state have mental-health professionals on staff.

Obstacles remain

Even with this new PTSD rule, obstacles must be cleared away to ensure that all veterans receive the VA services they’ve earned. For example, a Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman praised the new PTSD rule, but noted that VFW supported a more expansive change that would have accepted PTSD diagnoses from private mental-health professionals, not just VA staff.

“The VA mental-health professionals, good as they are, are understaffed and overtasked,” VFW spokesman Joe Davis told the Associated Press.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester also applauded the new PTSD rule, but warned that the VA needs to be able to handle an increase in veterans’ claims while reducing an existing backlog.

During a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Tester reminded VA leaders that more than a third of all veterans’ disability benefit claims have been in review for more than 125 days — the VA’s target for reviews. He said further delays in processing are likely if changes are not made.

“Like all disability compensation claims, it’s critical that we get them done quickly and accurately,” Tester said. “If we fall short on either front, we’re not keeping up our end of the bargain to take care of those who were injured while serving our country.”

The cost of wars in Afghanistan and and Iraq includes providing health care and disability compensation for injured U.S. military members. Proper recognition of PTSD is just one piece of the debt the United States is obligated to pay. As Tester said last week, “shame on us if we fail.”