Helping Vets Get Treatment for PTSD – Problems w/ VA Stopped Veteran’s Courts Legislation

On this Memorial Day do not forget the soldiers living with the long-term impact of service – including those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The New York Times has an op-ed today from Mike Scotti, a Marine disappointed in the VA’s performance regarding post-traumatic stress treatment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scotti reveals the VA’s PTSD appointment schedulers were cooking the books to improve their statistics on wait times for veterans seeking mental health services. 

I wish I could say this were surprising. It’s not because the VA’s poor performance effectively killed my legislation to create veteran’s courts in Missouri to help get our veterans the treatment they deserve.

House Bill 1110 flew through the House this year. The bill would very simply allow local courts to set up treatment programs for veterans where the prosecutor, judge, and veteran agree that treatment for substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from service would be better for society than our traditional lock-em away mentality. We know our veterans our capable of being productive citizens. Even more, we know they’re willing to sacrifice for others. And we also know many veterans are coming home from our current conflicts with wounds that are invisible to most people. As I’ve written on this blog before, programs like this are showing success in several different places around the country. I thought the bill would become law. So did others. 

So what happened? Well, the VA’s inadequate service led to a fiscal note being placed on the bill between between when it passed 149 to 1 in the House and was referred to a Senate committee. If the VA cannot screen veterans or get them treatment in a time frame sufficient for our criminal justice system, the Missouri Department of Mental Health would likely be responsible for much of the diagnoses and treatments – and that costs Missouri government money – $5,000 per veteran to be precise. If just 20 veterans received treatment, the legislation would cost the state of Missouri $100,000. If 200 veterans receive treatment, it’d be $1 million. We don’t know precisely how many veterans would be impacted. As a result, the bill did not move again. Worse, presumably because of the fiscal note resulting from the VA’s incompetence, we weren’t even given a hearing.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about some ‘unearned’ federal handout here. Instead, we’re talking about veterans who sacrificed for our country not getting health care services from the very federal agency set up to serve those who served in our military. When a Missouri veteran has post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their service, it’s fair to say they earned treatment for that PTSD on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Scotti points out in the op-ed, many veterans suffer silently from PTSD and don’t think of going to the VA for help. As Scotti relates:

Since coming home, I’ve had my mind hijacked by visions of the corpses of children, their eyes blackened, at the side of the road. I recall carrying the coffins of fallen brothers. I remember losing friends who probably knew exactly what was happening to them, as they bled out on the side of a dusty road in Iraq. And I’ve felt the shame of having suicidal feelings. Like many others, I chose to hide them. Yet, even in the darkest days of my own post-traumatic stress, when I was considering choosing between making my suicide look like an accident or taking a swan dive off some beautiful bridge, I never considered going to the V.A. for help.

I cannot imagine going through life haunted by such images – and with no place to turn. Scotti argues that the VA needs to change its ways:

What this generation of veterans needs from the V.A. is a recognition that when the color of life has faded to gray, you need to talk to someone about it today, not weeks or months from now. We need America to acknowledge what war does to the young men and women who fight it and to share the message that dragged me out of the darkness: It’s O.K. if you’re not O.K.

I’m going to re-file my legislation next year. This is too important an issue not to keep fighting. Missouri veterans struggling with PTSD deserve treatment and a second chance at success. As Scotti says, its OK if our veterans aren’t OK when they come home. Rather than ignoring the problem, we need to do what we can to help them. We know from courts elsewhere that they’re good for both veterans and the general public – but we’ll have to fight that fiscal note, and perhaps we can have a discussion on the VA’s responsibilities in the committee hearing.