VA emergency mental health care would be free to all veterans under this bill

Abbie Bennett
January 28, 2020 - 3:32 pm
VeteranSuicideCrisisLine

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

A new bill introduced in the House Tuesday would grant free emergency mental health care to all veterans, paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

The Veterans’ Acute Crisis Care for Emergent Suicided Symptoms (ACCESS) Act introduced by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., would direct VA to pay for or provide emergency mental health care to all veterans. 

The bill includes care for veterans who:

  • Are not otherwise eligible for VA healthcare benefits;
  • Have any and all enrollment statuses or service connections;
  • Have any discharge, including dishonorable.

Veterans would have the option to call the Veterans Crisis Line, go to the ER or alert other qualified medical professionals of their crisis who will be able to "pre-clear" that veteran for treatment on the VA's dime, a "far simpler" option in times of crisis, Takano said.

Veterans would then be eligible for up to 30 days of inpatient care or 90 days of outpatient care, which can also be extended at the discretion of the VA Secretary, according to the bill. 

Emergency mental health care includes stabilization care to a veteran who arrives at a VA or non-VA facility with “an acute suicidal crisis,” Takano said. The text of the bill leaves what qualifies as an "emergency situation" up to the Secretary of the VA. 

Takano called it potentially the "most significant step forward in addressing veteran suicide" in the past three years. 

To qualify, a veteran must have at least 90 cumulative days of service, according to the text of the bill, such as completing basic training and an additional training school, Takano said. Guard and Reservists will qualify for care under the bill, though many do not qualify for VA health care otherwise. 

Takano did not have an estimate of the number of veterans the bill could open care to, but said it was "one element" in the path forward to reduce the rate of veteran suicide, which VA data shows is about 20 per day. 

Inspiration for the bill came from veterans who struggle to get mental health care in crisis because of cost, Takano said.

In April 2019, he said the committee heard about a veteran who got emergency inpatient treatment at a VA hospital for a mental health crisis, but because he was not enrolled in the VA healthcare system, the veteran was left with a $20,000 bill, which only exacerbated his crisis. 

The bill explicitly said that "if the (VA) Secretary furnishes emergent mental health care to an eligible individual ... the Secretary may not charge the individual for such care" and further, not allow any other health care provider to charge the veteran, either.

“No veteran should be forced to choose between getting the emergency mental health care they need and figuring out how to pay for it,” Takano said. "I’m proud to introduce legislation to take cost out of the equation and ensure all veterans can get this critical care during a mental health crisis without any doubt about who will pay for it. By expanding eligibility for emergent care, my bill will help save veterans’ lives.”

Takano said he had not yet discussed the bill with his counterpart, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, or VA leaders yet.

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If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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