Farm Progress: Rural veterans mental health bill heads to president

by Jacqui Fatka

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously to approve bipartisan legislation to expand mental health care for rural veterans. The legislation now heads to the desk of President Biden for his signature.

The Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans’ Mental Health Act, named in memory of Iowa veteran Brandon Ketchum, establishes new Rural Access Network for Growth Enhancement (RANGE) programs through the Department of Veteran Affairs and supports additional research on rural veteran mental health care needs.

In 2016, Sgt. Brandon Ketchum of Davenport died by suicide after he was denied access to mental health services related to his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Iowa.

According to the VA, at least one in five veterans return from combat with at least one serious mental health condition, yet 85% of rural residents live in a Mental Health Care Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA).

“I can think of no better way to honor the memory and service of Iowa veteran Brandon Ketchum, who lost his own battle with PTSD after not getting the care he needed when he returned home, than Congress approving legislation named in his honor to secure better care for our veterans,” says Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, a lead sponsor of the bill.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., helping lead this legislation to unanimous passage in the Senate, Axne notes.

“When our veterans return home, the care they receive shouldn’t be determined by their zip code. The bipartisan legislation now headed to the President’s desk will help ensure veterans in our rural areas get the support they need,” Axne says.

The House passed the legislation in May after being introduced in April by the entire Iowa delegation.

“Brandon asked for help but was turned away because of a lack of resources. We must make sure – in his memory and for the sake of others still serving – that when our soldiers return home, they can get the treatment they need,” Axne said on the floor speech during House debate in May.

To address the growing number of mental health needs of returning veterans, the VA developed RANGE programs, which provide a small team of specialists to meet the needs of rural veterans with serious mental health and daily living issues.

These programs are designed to support veterans who often are at high risk for housing insecurity and extensive inpatient hospitalization by integrating community, family, and financial resources in support of independent living.

In addition to establishing three new veteran mental health programs, the new legislation bill will direct the Government Accountability Office to study how the VA can improve mental health care for rural veterans to enable better response in the future for veterans like Sgt. Ketchum who request treatment.

The bill was originally introduced with Reps. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Ed Case, D-Hawaii.

“Our veterans deserve the best care and attention, including when it comes to treating unseen wounds. That is why I am pleased both the House and Senate have passed this important legislation, which will help provide reliable mental health services for veterans in rural areas,” adds Feenstra. “After an Iowan, Sgt. Brandon Ketchum, took his own life after being denied care by the VA, it was clear shortcomings in mental health care for our veterans needed to be addressed.”

The legislation has been endorsed by The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Wounded Warrior Project, Military Veterans Advocacy, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America , Minority Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Fleet Reserve Association, Sea Service Family Foundation, Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs, The Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action.