Tester: New roadmap will improve mental health care in rural America

(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester is proposing a new “roadmap” to increase access to mental health care in rural America.

Tester is calling for the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Health and Human Services to improve rural mental health care treatment, particularly for Montana’s 103,000 veterans.

Tester, who recently chaired a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing in Billings, wants the departments to redouble their efforts to bring more doctors and cost-saving technologies to rural areas.  He also highlighted the need for more mental health professionals to serve in rural America.

“It was clear from my discussions with veterans, providers, VA officials, and advocates that the VA’s inability to recruit and retain health professionals in rural communities is an increasing concern,” Tester wrote the departments’ leaders.  “To what extent does HHS and VA currently collaborate to educate and train the medical professional workforce for service in rural America?”

Tester noted that staffing shortfalls force veterans to travel farther, pay more, and wait longer for needed care.  He also pushed the agencies to work with the Indian Health Service – a part of the Department of Health and Human Services – to improve care for Native Americans.

“With the chronic shortage of mental health providers in rural America, and the increasing number of men and women returning from overseas with complex and hidden wounds of war, this is an issue that will only get more difficult to address unless prompt and significant actions are taken,” Tester wrote.

The VA has treated more than 207,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s critical that these two agencies work together,” said Matt Kuntz, Executive Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montana.  “Resources are scarce in rural Montana and we can’t let red tape prevent veterans from getting the services they need.  I appreciate Senator Tester pushing this issue forward because rural Montanans deserve quality mental health care.”

Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, recently called the VA’s announcement that it will hire 1,600 mental health workers nationwide a ‘much-needed step forward.’  His letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is available online HERE.