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Kirkpatrick Bill Further Improves Rural Veterans Access to Health Care

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick recently introduced a bill that would help improve mental health services for rural veterans and their families.
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American Indians enlist in the United States military at the highest rate per capita of any ethnic population. When they return from duty, the majority of them live in rural communities where health care for veterans, as a whole, tends to be lacking.

On December 3, U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., introduced a bill to strengthen mental health services for rural veterans and their families.

Throughout the U.S. there are roughly 6.1 million veterans living in rural communities according to federal estimates, in Kirkpatrick’s Congressional District there are more than 65,000. According to an ICTMN article in July on the Veteran Affairs effort to expand access and visibility to American Indians, much of Indian country lives in these rural and remote areas that may not have a VA facility.

RELATED: Veteran Affairs Expanding Access and Visibility for Native Vets

“Simply because of where they live, rural veterans may lack access to quality mental healthcare through VA,” said Kirkpatrick, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in a press release following the announcement. “These men and women have served our country, often in dangerous, faraway places, so it’s our duty to ensure they can get quality care when they come home.”

“This is important, this is everyone’s VA – it is very important that tribes have the access they need in the burbs,” Dr. Tommy Sowers, Department of Veterans Affairs assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs said in the ICTMN article.

Kirkpatrick’s bill, the Rural Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, is the companion legislation to Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s bill, S. 1155.

“Too many veterans return from the battlefield with unseen wounds like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury,” said Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “This bill will expand the reach of mental health professionals in rural areas so more veterans get the care they need no matter where they live. I appreciate Congresswoman Kirkpatrick’s commitment to improving veterans’ mental health care and look forward to working with her to pass our bill into law.”

Sowers, who listened to tribal leaders during his visits, also used the time to educate Native veterans, their families and tribal leaders on ways the VA is trying to provide better access. He discussed the VA’s mail order prescription service, and the need to clear up policy to further ensure Native veterans receive the care they need. One issue with the VA’s mail order prescription service is that many homes throughout Indian reservations don’t have mailboxes, instead the mail is distributed to post offices.

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At the time Sowers said, “With mail order prescriptions, the VA is by far the leader in mail order prescriptions. This means Native American veterans don’t have to drive into a facility just to get a prescription refilled.”

However, it does not account for the fact that most Native veterans will have to drive to get their mail as it is. That half hour ride to get medication for say PTSD treatment is still – at times – an issue and a challenge.

Kirkpatrick recently met with top VA officials to discuss her legislation and the challenges in rural areas, such as a lack of local mental health care professionals, funding restrictions that hinder information technology systems and medical equipment, and an inability to use telemedicine services for a variety of reasons.

Kirkpatrick’s bill would:

-- Include licensed professional mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists as participating professions in the VA’s flagship recruitment program, the VA Office of Academic Affiliations’ Health Professionals Trainee Program. This would allow VA to cultivate its mental health workforce in rural areas where such services are often scarce.

-- Provide VA with flexibility to include critical IT funding in advanced appropriations that would provide for the timely replacement of medical equipment and allow the development of medical information systems to continue without interruption.

-- Strengthen language authorizing VA to provide mental health services and support to immediate family members of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are readjusting to civilian life.

-- Require the VA to identify and report to Congress on issues that may be impeding the provision of telemedicine services to veterans, and to identify steps to address these issues.

According to the release, Kirkpatrick has prioritized veterans’ issues on behalf of Arizona’s more than half-million veterans. Her first piece of legislation to pass the 113th Congress was VA CORE, which will help tackle the massive VA claims backlog. That legislative victory built on her veterans-related accomplishments from the 111th Congress, when she was able to pass legislation that helped Native American, rural and disabled veterans with critical issues such as housing access and cost-of-living adjustments.