The House passed its appropriations bundle, which was made up of two legislative packages that included all 12 fiscal year 2020 funding bills. The appropriation packages, products of bipartisan negotiation, now head to the Senate for approval.
Included in the House legislative package is the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2020 (H.R. 2745), which provides report language on issues related to mental health. Here are a few items of interest:
Expansion of Mental Health Benefits to National Guard and Reserves
The legislative agreement acknowledges the importance of providing mental health care to all warriors, including members of the National Guard and Reservists. The House committees recognize that these individuals may benefit from access to mental health services provided by the Veterans Administration—including suicide-prevention services—even if they were not called to active service under federal orders.
The agreement directs the Veterans Administration to provide a report to the appropriations committees of both Houses of Congress on the feasibility of extending access to these services to all members of the National Guard and Reserves, regardless of their federal activation status. This report, to be provided to the committees no later than 180 days after the enactment of this Act, must include the costs associated with this effort, an estimate of the impact on capacity, as well as any relevant legislative language needed to accomplish this goal.
Reduce Suicide, Relapse and Hospital Visits
The agreement encourages the VA to consider the use of cutting-edge, off-the-shelf technology and pharmacy-management protocols as tools to reduce suicide, relapse and hospital visits by veterans treated for mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The Veterans Health Administration’s ability to recruit and retain quality clinical and support staff remains a concern. The agreement directs the VA to comply with Government Accounting Office (GAO) recommendations to improve staffing, recruitment and retention strategies for clinicians.
Mental Health Staffing
Due to the growing need for mental health professionals, the Veterans Administration is directed to maintain appropriate mental health staffing levels to provide veterans with timely, effective, high-quality care. The agreement directs the VA to prioritize the hiring of mental health professionals and to keep the appropriations committees of both Houses of Congress apprised on a quarterly basis on the way the VA is meeting its hiring goals, including actions taken to improve recruitment and retention across the country, and specifically in rural areas. This report should include updates to the ratio of faculty staff to outpatient veterans being treated for mental health needs.
To improve recruitment and retention initiatives for health-care providers in rural and highly rural areas, the agreement urges the Veterans Administration to conform with the recommendations contained in GAO report number GA0-181-24. The agreement directs the VA to provide a report on the status of compliance with these recommendations to the appropriations committees of both Houses of Congress no later than 90 days after enactment of this Act.
The agreement directs the Veterans Administration to study the feasibility and advisability of making yoga, meditation, creative arts therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture accessible as treatment for mental health conditions, including suicide risk, to veterans at all VA facilities, either in person or through telehealth.
The Veterans Administration Vet Centers and Mobile Vet Centers provide important readjustment counseling services. The VA also partners with organizations that provide outdoor experiences for veterans as part of a continuum of care to help veterans develop a community of support to treat combat-related injuries, including those related to behavioral health. The agreement directs the Veterans Administration to submit a report to the appropriations committees of both Houses of Congress to highlight best practices of Vet Centers, including partnerships to provide outdoor experiences, and to include a plan to disseminate the findings, as well as incorporate them into criteria for additional sites. The report, to be submitted to the committees no later than 120 days after enactment of this Act, should address whether successful programs should be replicated in other areas.
The agreement includes additional funding to increase telehealth capacity in rural and highly rural areas. The agreement directs the Veterans Administration to develop a plan to improve veteran and provider satisfaction, increase awareness of the telehealth program and enhance adoption of telehealth by veterans and providers. The VA plan should include actions that will be taken to make telehealth more accessible to patients in highly rural areas. The report is to be provided to the appropriations committees of both Houses of Congress no later than 180 days after enactment of this Act.
Thank you, House Leaders!
The American Counseling Association (ACA) thanks House leaders for their guidance and foresight in making mental health a priority for our veterans.
ACA Members: We’re Here for You!
The American Counseling Association (ACA) is working extensively with the Veterans Administration on issues that are important to you. Whether we are providing additional information around VA job-qualification standards or advocating on your behalf with Veterans Administration leadership, we are working for you!
Source: House Report 116-63: Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2020.