Note from MOAA: If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or via www.veteranscrisisline.net.
A bill designed to improve veterans’ access to VA mental health care in rural areas became law late last month, expanding a program designed to reach an underserved portion of the veteran population.
President Joe Biden signed the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Act of 2021 on June 30. MOAA joined other major veterans organizations such as The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in supporting the legislation.
“The need for additional mental health care resources across the country is critical, but especially dire for veterans and native veterans living in rural or highly rural areas,” MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret), said in backing the bill. “MOAA is pleased to lend our support … and our thanks to Rep. Cynthia Axne for this vital bill.”
Axne, an Iowa Democrat, introduced the House bill April 12 with her three fellow Iowa representatives, all Republicans, among the initial co-sponsors. The bill honors Sgt. Brandon Ketchum, who served in the Marine Corps and later in the Iowa National Guard, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
[RELATED: MOAA Pledges Continued Support to VA Suicide Prevention Initiative]
Ketchum battled post-traumatic stress and received VA mental health treatment, to include multiple inpatient care sessions between 2014 and 2015. On July 7, 2016, he requested inpatient care at a VA facility but was told it was full and was denied; he committed suicide the following day.
A VA investigation found the VA’s decision was “within acceptable practice.”
“Brandon asked for help but was turned away because of a lack of resources,” Axne said on the House floor. “We must make sure – in his memory and for the sake of others still serving — that when our soldiers return home, they can get the treatment they need.”
The law requires the VA to add three new Rural Access Network for Growth Enhancement (RANGE) Centers in FY 2022. The existing network of more than 80 centers “provides community-based care and services for rural veterans diagnosed with serious mental health issues,” according to a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee press release on the bill.
It also requires a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the provision of mental health care to rural veterans, including how best to expand and target resources, the average wait time for rural veterans seeking mental health care, and statistics related to deaths by suicide and drug overdose.
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