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Initiative Aims to Help Veterans with Mental Illness

Initiative Aims to Help Veterans with Mental Illness

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WASHINGTON — A private veterans’ group is joining with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to try to help mentally ill veterans who have fallen through the cracks in the system.

“We all hear about 20 [veterans] a day that take their own life … or [those who] become incarcerated without first receiving the support and treatment they need, which should include mental health services,” Lana McKenzie, RN, chief medical executive of AMVETS, a group that represents the interests of 20 million veterans, said at a press briefing here Tuesday. “Today we’re here to change that.”

The multi-pronged initiative, called Healthcare Evaluation, Advocacy, and Legislation (HEAL), involves reaching out to veterans through a series of town halls, round tables, and other public forums. AMVETS is hiring case managers to work with the veterans and get them connected to healthcare services inside or outside of the VA, whichever is appropriate. The organization is also launching a hotline, 833-VET-HEAL, on March 19th for veterans to reach out for help that way. AMVETS will work with the VA to coordinate services for the veterans they help through the initiative.

“You may be thinking, ‘Why now?'” McKenzie continued. “The answer is simple — we all know better; we have a responsibility to do better.” She noted that more than 300,000 vets who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many have incurred traumatic brain injury (TBI). “The AMVETS health team will ensure that any veterans who seek out support have access to all the services available, and we will also seek out veterans who may have fallen through gaps in care.”

VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, praised the initiative. “Mental health and particularly suicide prevention is our top clinical priority at the VA,” he said. Shulkin listed steps his agency has taken to help veterans with mental illness, such as using predictive analytics to figure out which veterans are at highest suicide risk, and expanding mental health services to include those with a less-than-honorable discharge. “But most important is our work with partners on outreach to veterans who need help … so this type of initiative is very important.”

Carolyn Clancy, MD, executive in charge at the Veterans Health Administration, said the importance of assistance on the front lines “can’t be overemphasized … Veterans who get into our system for mental services have dramatically better outcomes.”

The initiative is estimated to cost about $700,000, and AMVETS is hoping that it can partner with interested corporations to raise some of those funds. The money goes toward “all the information technology, travel, and the hiring of professionals,” explain Sherman Gillum, chief strategy officer at AMVETS. “The idea is to present this as a [stock offering] where companies will ‘invest’ in what we’re doing.”

After the press briefing, Gillum talked with MedPage Today about the kinds of veterans that are likely to fall through the cracks. One example is a veteran diagnosed with both PTSD and with mild TBI. “The symptoms of [mild TBI] are not enough to warrant admission to a hospital, so [he or she is] treated for the PTSD,” while the TBI is more or less ignored, especially since it’s not obviously disfiguring, he said. Things can get worse when a veteran goes outside the VA for help, especially if no records are brought over from the VA.

Women veterans are another potential target for the initiative, he added. Whether or not they are getting help “depends on whether they’re comfortable enough to immerse themselves in the VA — a lot of times they aren’t.”


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