Tsongas reintroduces legislation to improve the quality of veterans’ health care

From the Desk of Congressman Niki Tsongas

By: Congressman Niki Tsongas – January 12, 2009


 WASHINGTON, DC – Congressman Niki Tsongas today reintroduced two bills to address and improve the quality and continuum of mental health care available to veterans. Recognizing the sharp increase in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health wounds among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Tsongas’ legislation would help to improve diagnosis of these conditions by training counselors on college campuses to recognize their initial signs.

“I am pleased to reintroduce legislation today designed to improve the mental health care of veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Tsongas. “Recent studies have shown that nearly 300,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhibited signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other serious forms of depression. The fact that only about half of these veterans have sought care for their conditions exposes a glaring need to reach those additional veterans who may be affected.”

“The legislation will aid the detection of PTSD among our newest generation of veterans by creating a pilot program to train counselors at higher education facilities on how to effectively identify and address service related stressors unique to our veterans that may manifest after separation from the military,” explained Tsongas.

“The new GI Bill that was signed into law will allow thousands of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to access a college education,” Tsongas continued. “It is therefore highly appropriate that counselors on college campuses be trained to recognize the signs of PTSD or other mental wounds.

These counselors may be the most easily accessible mental health professionals for veterans taking advantage of their GI Bill benefit and they should be trained and ready to provide appropriate assistance.”

Becky Arevalo of Billerica, an engineering student at Middlesex Community College who also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 and 2005 as part of her deployment with the Army National Guard, talked about the hardships associated with PTSD.

“When many of our soldiers come home, they don’t even realize how difficult it can be transitioning back into civilian life. We sometimes segregate ourselves from the world and only connect with other soldiers.

When I first realized I was struggling, I was fortunate enough to be able to get immediate care at the VA. If those positions are eliminated or overloaded, it will create a serious void for soldiers in crisis. The VA therapists play a vital role in helping soldiers regain their confidence. I know mine helped me succeed in the world again.”

In addition to her classes at MCC, Arevalo also serves as a member of the newly-formed MCC Veterans Advisory Board, which was created last semester to help returning veterans deal with a myriad of issues on campus. The board consists of more than half a dozen veterans who are both current and past MCC students, as well as several MCC administrators. “I’m extremely appreciative to see Congressman Tsongas taking the lead on filing these important pieces of legislation on behalf of veterans everywhere,” Arevalo said.

“Both of the pieces will go a long way toward helping our returning forces acclimate more efficiently into both society and in particular, into the places of higher education where we are trying to further our education and get established back on our feet.”

“When PTSD is appropriately recognized and diagnosed, veterans can be effectively treated through therapy, medication and expert care, Tsongas explained.

“The key is that those involved in the lives of our veterans are able to recognize these seemingly invisible scars.”

Accompanying legislation also introduced by Tsongas today would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver quarterly reports to Congress on the amount of mental health provider vacancies in the VA system in an effort to ensure that appropriate numbers of providers are available to veterans.

“It is also the job of Congress to ensure that there are appropriate numbers of mental health care professionals for veterans to access,” Tsongas continued. “The second bill I am reintroducing requires the VA to provide quarterly reports to Congress on the number of vacancies for mental health professionals at VA facilities, so that we can effectively evaluate and address any shortages of these critically important providers,” Tsongas concluded.

Tsongas is joined by Congressman Michael Michaud (D-ME), Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health in introducing the legislation. “I believe that we owe all our veterans the opportunity to achieve the American dream that they fought to protect,” said Michaud.

“This means ensuring they have the quality, consistent, accessible and affordable physical and mental health care they need and have earned. Our newest generation of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan have some of the highest rates of PTSD we’ve ever seen.

This legislation will go a long way toward ensuring our veterans can pursue healthy and active lives for many years to come.”