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Legislators on Campaign to Improve Mental Health Care for Service Members

by on August 13, 2014 6:30 AM

A pair of Pennsylvania legislators hit the State College area Tuesday, as part of a campaign to push for better mental health care for men and women in uniform.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson made an appearance at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg to discuss the importance of mental health care for military service members and veterans.

After a roundtable discussions with veterans and members of the veterans’ service organization the American Legion, Toomey called veteran’s healthcare “one of the few areas of congress where we can occasionally work across the aisle to get things done” at a news conference in the museum lobby.

Earlier this year, Thompson introduced the Medical Evaluation Parity for Service Members (MEPS) Act, which would mandate an evaluation for mental health in addition to physical health when an individual enlists in the military.

“When you join the military, or switch from active duty, you get a tremendous physical exam where they poke you and prod you, but there’s no real comprehensive mental health exam,” Thompson says.

An army father himself, Thompson says he’s appalled by the rate of suicide among military service members. He says studies show that close to 60% of service members who commit suicide first attempted it before joining. Thompson hopes that a mental health exam will identify symptoms of mental distress before it’s too late.

Thompson says the idea for the bill didn't originate from the recent Department of Veteran's Affairs scandal, but instead came out of a phone call he received back in 2009. An army specialist and constituent called Thompson to discuss how many of his friends had committed suicide after returning from deployment in the Middle East.

“That's always going to be a tough call to take, but when your own son is in the army, it’s even harder,” Thompson says.

Toomey says the legislation does not dictate how the Department of Defense will handle individuals found to have symptoms of mental illness during this pre-enlistment screening. Rather than writing predetermined reactions to various mental illnesses into the bill, Toomey says it makes more sense for the DOD to develop guidelines with the help of mental health professionals.

With “unanimous support” from veterans, mental health professionals, military families and legislators of both parties, Thompson says he’s hopeful that either the House or Senate version of the bill will soon be passed into law.

Kit Watson, a department adjutant with the Pennsylvania office of the American Legion, says he’s glad to see lawmakers bringing attention to the importance of veteran’s mental health care.

He says the roundtable meeting included discussion on the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide in returning veterans, as well as the tendency for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to rely too heavily on medication alone when treating mental illness.

Toomey says the MEPS Act is merely the latest in a series of bills and other efforts to improve health care for veterans and active duty service members, including a bill recently signed into law to reform the VA. That bill increases accountability for VA officials and leaders, and extends coverage offered by the VA – even allowing veterans to visit non-VA hospitals for care.

“We’re not finished by any means,” Toomey says. “We’re working on a variety of steps to hopefully improve circumstances for those who have served our country.”

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Michael Garrett is a freelance reporter who covers a wide range of assignments for StateCollege.com.
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