July 31, 2008

Wyden and Smith Address Veterans Mental Health Care Failures

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Oregon's Senators Gordon H. Smith (R) and Ron Wyden (D) joined forces today in an effort to improve mental health care services for America's veterans by introducing the Healing Our Nation's Heroes Act of 2008. The bill will establish a commission to oversee services provided to veterans and members of the Armed Forces, and will recruit and train veterans to serve in the mental health care profession.

"Whether it is referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, shell shock or combat fatigue, these very serious mental illnesses deserve equal attention and care as a physical wound," said Smith. "Our goal is to ensure our heroes in arms face no shortage of trained professionals available to treat their unique health care needs."

"Surviving the trauma of combat shouldn't sentence our forces to a lifetime of mental and emotional pain," Wyden said. "This bill will help them move beyond the invisible scars of the battlefield and rebuild their lives at home."

In July of 2007, Smith and Wyden held a Senate Special Committee on Aging field hearing at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oregon. Testimony of officials from the Veterans Administration, as well as local programs that support veterans' mental and physical health, identified the scope of issues and barriers facing veterans in need of care. Based on input from the hearing, the Smith/Wyden legislation aims to ensure the mental health infrastructure is prepared to handle veterans' needs.

The Healing our Nation's Heroes Act of 2008 includes three parts to support veterans' mental health care, including:

• Establishing a commission to oversee care provided to veterans and members of the Armed Forces with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other disorders that affect their mental health. The commission will report to Congress and make recommendations to the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, and look for innovative ways that the two can collaborate to better support veterans' interests.

• Establishing the Heroes-to-Healers program to train former service members to become part of the mental health work force. This proposal builds upon the success of the Troops-to-Teachers program which transitions troops to teachers in high-need school districts. This will help alleviate workforce shortages and bring professionals with military experience into the mental health care field.

• Creating a grant program for Mid-Career Professionals that will allow state and local mental health agencies as well as non-profit mental health organizations, to establish, expand or enhance mental health provider recruitment and retention efforts.