VFW National Commander John W. Stroud said the bill, which is awaiting the signature of President Obama, "does strengthen and expand the mental health programs and services currently available to service members and veterans ... [but what it] doesn't do is go far enough."
The $22 million Clay Hunt bill includes a new tool that the Veterans Affairs Department can use to recruit more mental health professionals -- repayment of student loans for psychiatry students. VA officials say the pilot program will be a significant incentive for young psychiatrists to fill VA positions.
The law also mandates annual evaluations to determine the efficacy of VA suicide prevention programs, new veteran peer support programs and the creation of a new website to better explain what mental health resources are available to veterans.
The VFW and other groups had supported dropped provisions to improve access to mental health programs for reserve and National Guard members. Other dropped provisions include a mandated review of less-than-honorable military discharges to determine if the member's behavior was linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, and to establish a single drug formulary for the VA and the Defense Department.
Aleks Morosky, deputy director of legislative services for the VFW, said these were in earlier versions of anti-suicide legislation, including the Clay Hunt bill.
A provision calling for a single VA-DoD drug formulary may have been pulled because it directly affected the Defense Department, he said. That would have meant sending the bill to the armed services committees of the House and Senate for approval, thereby adding another legislative hurdle to passage.
Without that provision, only the veterans' affairs committees would have to approve sending the bill to their chambers for a vote.
Morosky said the VFW believes a single drug formulary for VA and DoD is critical for the care of troops transitioning from active-duty to veteran status.
"Now, when you're on active duty and get mental health care, you get a certain medication regimen" based on specific needs and met by the drugs available through the DoD's inventory, he said. Because getting the right medication is "trial and error," it can be a difficult process finding the correct regimen, he said.
"But since the VA does not have all the same drugs as the DoD, when you transition you have to start all over again," Morosky said. "So we support them having a single formulary."
Ian de Planque, legislative director for The American Legion, said there is a real need to improve access to mental health service to members of the Guard and Reserve. Services are in-place for active-duty members and activated reservists, he said, not once they are back in their communities.
"If you're in the 82nd Airborne in Fayetteville, there is a nucleus of care there for you, but for the Guard and Reserve, they're spread out across the region," he said. "I was in a Guard unit 45 miles west of Washington ... you had people who were from inside the DC area and from the Shenandoah Valley."
"So there is more work that needs to be done in that direction," he said. "We were disappointed this was not in [the Clay Hunt bill], but very happy with the bill overall."
A mandatory review of other-than-honorable discharges has garnered support among veterans' organizations with the growing awareness that post-traumatic stress disorder plays a great role in behavior problems.
The Legion routinely helps veterans with petitions for discharge upgrades, and the Defense Department last year issued new guidelines to enable its review boards to whether a vet was dealing with PTSD at the time of separation.
In September, when the Pentagon issued the new guidelines, then-Legion National Commander Michael Helm said: "Many of those veterans getting our help served in Vietnam, and many of them came home with undiagnosed PTSD and a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge they never should have received."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.