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Obama: Improve mental health access, care for military, vets

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Posted: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 4:31 pm

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama signed an executive order, Aug. 31, that provides increased access to mental health services for service members, military families and veterans.

The order, that was signed as he left Washington for a visit to Fort Bliss, Texas, directs the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other key federal departments to expand suicide-prevention strategies and to take new steps to meet the demand for mental health and substance abuse treatment services, White House officials said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the new provisions underscore the U.S. government’s commitment to strengthening the health of the military force and providing additional support to combat’s “two unseen wounds” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

The executive order:

• Strengthens suicide-prevention efforts across the force and in the veteran community.

• Enhances access to mental healthcare by building partnerships between the Department of Veterans Affairs and community providers.

• Increases the number of VA mental health providers serving veterans.

• Promotes mental health research and development of more effective ways to prevent, identify and treat PTSD, TBI and other related injuries.

More than two million service members have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, serving tours of unprecedented duration and frequency, White House officials noted in announcing the new executive order.

“Long deployments and intense combat conditions require optimal support for the emotional and mental health needs of our service members and their families,” they said.

The executive order builds on efforts already under way within the Defense Department, VA and other federal agencies to ensure veterans and active, Guard and reserve service members and their families get the support they deserve, officials noted.

In terms of suicide prevention, the executive order directs VA to increase the capacity of its veteran crisis line by 50 percent by the year’s end. It also calls on VA to ensure that no veteran who reports being in crisis should have to wait more than 24 hours to be connected to a mental health professional, or trained mental health worker.

VA will also work with the Defense Department to establish a national, 12-month suicide prevention campaign focused on connecting veterans to mental health services, officials reported.

To ensure veterans have access to these services, the executive order also calls on VA and the Department of Health and Human Services to establish at least 15 pilot sites where VA can partner with local mental health providers. This initiative, officials said, will help ensure services are available in regions where VA has had trouble hiring or placing providers.

The order also directs VA and HHS (Health and Human Services) to develop a plan to increase access to mental healthcare in rural communities.

In addition, VA will hire 800 peer-to-peer support counselors to help veterans support each other and ensure that their mental health needs are met.

That’s on top of VA’s ongoing effort to hire 1,600 new mental healthcare professionals by June 2013. VA has hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals since 2009 and the new executive order includes recruiting incentives to build on that momentum.

The new order rallies interagency support in confronting mental health and substance abuse support for veterans, service members and their families. It establishes an interagency task force to recommend new strategies, and calls on DoD, VA, Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to devise a national plan to improve PTSD and TBI diagnosis and treatment.

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