Friday, August 1, 2014

Legislation Would Improve Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care

In an 11th hour move last night, the Senate approved a compromise bill that includes a number of provisions to increase veterans’ access to mental health care as part of broader plan to enhance the VA's medical workforce and allow access to care outside the VA system. The legislation, known as the Veterans' Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act, was passed by the House earlier this week and is now awaiting signature by President Obama.

The legislation calls for several actions that would lead to improved health care of veterans. Among them:
  • Annual studies of workforce shortages: The VA would identify annually the five occupations of health care providers with the largest staffing shortages and be able to utilize direct-appointment authority to fill these openings in an expedited manner.
  • Increased medical residency positions at the VA: The VA would establish or ensure sufficient numbers of medical residency positions at facilities in areas with health professional shortages. The number of graduate medical education residency positions will increase by up to 1,500 over five years with a priority for primary care, mental health, and other specialties.
  • Increased medical education debt repayment: The VA' s authority to operate the Health Professionals Educational Assistance Program (HPEAP) would extend through 2019, and the cap on debt reduction payments to participants would be increased from $60,000 to $120,000.
“We have a deep obligation to care for all the wounds of war,” said APA President Paul Summergrad, M.D. “In 2012, the VA Office of the Inspector General identified recruiting and retaining psychiatrists as the VA’s greatest mental health challenge. This legislation puts in place several actions to directly address that shortage and will result in many more veterans having timely access to needed psychiatric services.”

APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., said, “With the enactment of this legislation, the VA will have the authority to provide appropriate incentives to attract psychiatrists and other health care professionals in line with other similar federal programs and be better able to grow and maintain the workforce needed to serve all veterans.”

In addition, the legislation would allow veterans to obtain health care at non-VA facilities if they live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic or can't get an appointment at a VA clinic within 30 days, provide for improvements in VA health care facilities and the opening of 27 additional VA health facilities across the nation, require the VA to post online the wait times for scheduling appointments at VA medical facilities, and require an independent assessment of hospital care and medical services furnished in VA medical facilities.

A full report on the legislation will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychiatric News. For information on the VA’s failure to provide adequate and timely health care to veterans, see the Psychiatric News article Veterans Affairs Scheduling Scandal Leads to Turmoil at the Top

(Image: Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock)