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Active and reserve service members would be eligible for mental health counseling from one of the 207 veterans' centers operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs under bipartisan legislation introduced Thursday.
The bill also includes incentives for veterans to become mental health specialists so they could serve as counselors.
The bill would extend military survivor benefits in cases of suicide among service members with a history of service-connected mental health problems, an unprecedented policy change that would extend active-duty survivor benefits beyond the end of service for those who are not receiving retired pay.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., joined by six other senators including Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, said he is looking for a quick way to increase access to qualified behavioral health specialists who can provide both immediate treatment and, if needed, long-term care.
Vet Centers, which provide readjustment and mental health counseling for people no longer in the military, are not typically available for use by people on active duty, nor to their families. National Guard and reserve members may use Vet Centers after being demobilized but sometimes have problems with eligibility because they do not have the same discharge papers provided to people separated from active duty.
The bill introduced Thursday, S 2963, "will give our troops the same access to Vet Centers our veterans receive," Bond said in a statement.
This "not only opens the door to additional resources but also lightens the load on our currently over-tasked specialists," Bond said. "There are grossly insufficient numbers of military behavioral health specialists to provide the care our troops need."
The service surgeons general testified in April before the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee that each service had openings for mental health specialists that were difficult to fill because of competition from the private sector.
Bond said seeking treatment from VA rather than military sources might help some service members deal with the stigma involved. Getting help "outside of conventional military channels" could reduce that, he said.
To make sure VA has people to help, the bill includes incentives for retiring and separating service members to become behavioral health specialists, Bond said.
The survivor benefits provision of the bill would cover suicides that occur within two years of separation or retirement from the military for those who have a documented medical history of treatment for combat-related mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
In such cases, survivors would receive military and veterans' survivor benefits, active-duty burial benefits and Social Security payments as though the service member had died on his last day of active duty, Bond said.
Other co-sponsors of the bill are Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C.; Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Bond and Boxer have been collaborating on military mental health legislation for several years.