Tester Secures His Landmark Mental Health Bill for Guardsmen & Reservists in Final Annual Defense Legislation

Senator first introduced bill in 2012, paving the way for his CARE for Reservists Act to expand access to mental health services regardless of deployment status

Members of the National Guard and Reserves are one step closer to receiving mental health services following the inclusion of U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s bipartisan Care and Readiness Enhancement (CARE) for Reservists Act in the final National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021. Tester’s provision ensures that all Guardsmen and Reservists who need mental health services can access them, regardless of whether they have deployed.

Over the last decade, Tester has led the charge in Congress to improve mental health care for the nation’s servicemembers. In 2012, he proposed legislation to expand mental health services for Montana’s National Guardsmen and Reservists, which paved the way for the introduction of his CARE for Reservists Act in 2015. He successfully reintroduced the legislation alongside Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) in 2019 after publically urging bipartisan support for his bill.

“I’m thrilled that we’re one step closer to delivering consistent mental health care to Guardsmen and Reservists with the inclusion of my bill in the annual must-pass defense package,” said Senator Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The truth is that my CARE for Reservists Act will go far in treating unseen wounds of war by expanding mental health options for members of the Guard and Reserves, particularly those in rural areas with limited access to care. And it’ll provide counseling, employment training, and other critical services to help folks return to civilian life. I urge Congress to quickly pass this bill, so that we may follow through on our promise to connect every man and woman in uniform with the life-saving care they’ve earned.”

Tester’s CARE for Reservists Act improves Guardsmen and Reservists’ access to mental health services by allowing the Defense Department to fund needed behavioral or mental health care, regardless of whether that reservist is within his or her pre-deployment window or has never deployed at all. The bill also allows members of the Guard and Reserve to access Vet Centers for mental health screening and counseling, employment assessments, education training, and other services to help them transition to civilian life. It is estimated that approximately 1.4 million former members of the National Guard or Reserve that were never federally activated could be eligible for this new benefit in 2021.

Tester’s bill received strong support from mental health advocates as well as the National Guard and Reserve community.

“Congratulations to Senators Tester and Moran for getting this legislation across the finish line,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) CEO Jeremy Butler. “Sometimes we overuse the word ‘critical’ in describing the importance of certain efforts, but this legislation truly fits that definition. Many National Guardsmen and Reservists are ineligible for mental healthcare because they have never deployed or they are not in their deployment window. With the worsening veterans suicide crisis, we cannot allow any servicemembers to fall through the cracks. This legislation fills those gaps.”

“The American Legion recognizes that all members of the uniformed armed forces, both past and present, are at risk for mental or physical injuries during their service. For far too long those who have served in our National Guard and Reserve military components have not had the protection of all available mental health and suicide prevention services offered through the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Veteran Affairs,” said The American Legion’s National Veterans Affairs And Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Ralph Bozella. “The CARE for Reservists Act addresses this issue and we strongly support legislation that expands mental health care services to National Guardsman and Reservists.”

“The CARE for Reservists Act takes an important step to expand mental health care and treatment to members of the National Guard and Reserves,” said President and CEO of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) Lieutenant General Dana Atkins. “When a reservist comes home, caring for their mental health needs is essential, not only for their reintegration, but to ensure their readiness for the next time our nation calls on them.”

“NAMI Montana is incredibly grateful for this legislation to expand access to potentially lifesaving care for more of America’s heroes,” said National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Montana Executive Director Matt Kuntz. “Mental health issues don’t discriminate based upon the type of military service. Our nation’s willingness to provide access to care for those conditions shouldn’t either.”

“The provisions contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021 relating to the CARE for Reservists Act of 2020 will go a long way to address the long-standing gap in mental health care for our National Guard men and women and will provide these individuals with critical counseling and the medical treatment they deserve based on their service to our nation.” said President of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, retired Commander Sergeant Major Karen Craig. “We extend our sincere thanks to Senator Tester for introducing this important legislation and the resulting expansion of VA mental health care and programs to National Guard and Reserve members.”

“Year 2020 is being called ‘The year of the Guard’ due to the incredible demands placed upon our National Guard Airmen and Soldiers,” said Adjutant General of the Montana National Guard Major General Matt Quinn. “On June 8, 2020, more than 118,000 National Guard Service members were deployed at home and abroad serving our states and protecting the nation from COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, and the ongoing war on terror. Senator Tester’s CARE for Reservists Act finally acknowledges their service and provides resources to ensure they receive the mental health care needed through the Department of Veterans Affairs. As they give to our states and nation, so should we give them the care to carry on.”

“Suicide continues to be a heartbreaking challenge across the National Guard and Reserves,” said President of the National Guard Association of the United States, retired Brigadier General J. Roy Robinson. “Senator Tester’s bill would provide additional resources that just could help make a difference for our some of our soldiers and airmen. We always know that we can count on Senator Tester to do right by those who wear the uniform and their families.”

“Suicide has been deadlier than combat for the military,” said Montana National Guard Association Executive Director Brad Livingston. “More than 45,000 veterans and active-duty service members have killed themselves in the past six years. That is more than 20 deaths a day—in other words, more suicides each year than the total American military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Pentagon has made strides in helping those in need, the rate of deaths is rising. This bill will implement a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention that also targets our military population while continuing to support our military families.”

Full text of Tester’s bill is available HERE.