The Veterans Affairs saga has had many chapters over the last two years, both on the national and local level. Sensational incidents like missing X-rays, manipulated waiting lists, and a veteran being taken to a crack house grabbed headlines and helped us build the case for overhauling the Central Alabama VA.
However, many might not remember that the very first “red flag” indicating there could be a big problem at the Central Alabama VA was a May 2014 report showing that 52 percent of mental health patients waited more than 14 days for a doctor visit. That alarming statistic was emblematic of how the Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled in recent years to keep up with the rising need for mental health care and substance abuse treatment for veterans. There are several reasons why: increased demand from veterans returning from war, a national shortage of mental health professionals and an ongoing prescription drug abuse epidemic.
We have made progress combatting these problems. Congress has boosted funding for mental health services and enacted legislation making it easier for the VA to attract mental health professionals. The VA has rightly focused its attention on making sure veterans seeking immediate mental health treatment are seen right away. In Central Alabama, the latest reports show the average VA wait time for a mental health appointment is down to five days.
While I’m glad progress is being made, I believe we can do better. I also believe that we owe it to our veterans to look beyond traditional means and bring all available resources to bear in ensuring access to proper mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
That’s why this past week I introduced the “Protection and Advocacy for Veterans Act.” This bill would engage our proven Protection and Advocacy agencies to directly investigate the quality of mental health care and substance abuse treatment provided to veterans and to advocate for patients who receive inadequate care from the VA.
For 40 years, Protection and Advocacy agencies in Alabama and around the country have provided a critical service by monitoring the quality of care in state-operated hospitals, clinics, psychiatric wards, prisons, and other facilities. They have the authority to inspect medical records, provide recommendations to health care providers, and – when necessary – take legal action on behalf of patients.
Americans’ right to mental health care largely stems from Alabama’s famous Wyatt v. Stickney court case, the landmark 1972 ruling that established baseline care requirements for people with mental illness. The expertise Protection and Advocacy agencies have gained ensuring those rights in state facilities could be put to use helping veterans who need mental health care or substance abuse treatment at the VA.
We still have a long way to go in improving health services for veterans. That’s why it remains a top priority for me in Congress.
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Martha Roby represents Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband, Riley and their two children.