KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Military And VA Struggle With Mental Health And Other Health Care Issues

The events at Fort Hood highlight the military's struggle to provide mental health care for soldiers, veterans and the therapists who treat them.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the mass killing at a Texas base: "In the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the various branches had been roundly criticized for failing to adequately address post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other psychiatric problems. Responding to that criticism, leaders made progress in diagnosing and treating such illnesses among service members. But Thursday's attack at Ft. Hood -- as well as two other recent incidents in which military personnel allegedly turned guns on their own -- indicates an intractable problem not easily overcome."

The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lead to a wide array of mental and behavioral issues, including violence within the military. The recent shootings by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who was an Army psychiatrist, raises red flags and serious questions. "Those questions include whether, even today, military personnel can easily obtain mental health services. The factors that may have led to Hasan's alleged actions are not yet clear. What is clear is that no one is immune to mental health problems: Doctors have slightly higher suicide rates than does the general population. Military leaders acknowledge rampant psychiatric problems in their midst. According to the Army, the suicide rate among soldiers in Iraq is five times that seen in the Persian Gulf War and 11% higher than during Vietnam. The Army reported 133 suicides in 2008, the most ever. In January of this year, the 24 suicides reported by the Army outnumbered U.S. combat-related deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Roan, 11/9). 

USA Today reports that Hasan "had been chosen to be part of an ambitious plan to treat U.S. troops here in Afghanistan who need psychological counseling where counselors are often not available. As a result, the Pentagon is flying record numbers of therapists and other mental health workers into combat areas. But Thursday's rampage ... has thrown those efforts into some disarray. At least three of those killed were therapists slotted for Afghanistan. And six who were wounded are part of the 1493rd Combat Stress Control team to which Hasan was assigned and which was heading to Afghanistan, the Army says. Army spokesman George Wright said Sunday that commanders are wrestling with whether to cancel deployment of the team because it was so decimated by the shootings" (Zoraya, 11/8).

Meanwhile, NPR reports on the challenges that military families with special needs children face when spouses are deployed. "As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rage on, repeated deployments are taking a toll on military families. Service members are prepared for the dangers that lie ahead, but spouses and children are often left to navigate the emotional and physical challenges that come with separation alone. Those challenges are compounded when a parent has a child with special needs." NPR reports on the struggles that one Texas military family – the Griffitts – face on a daily basis as Andrew Griffitts serves a long deployment in Afghanistan (Gildea, 11/7).

The Des Moines Register reports on a lawsuit put forth by a veteran's widow in Iowa: "Roberta Minard goes to court today in an unusual wrongful-death lawsuit against the U.S. government. Minard says the government delayed critical medical services for her husband, a Vietnam veteran, in his time of need. According to the lawsuit, J.R. Minard of Unionville, Ia., died in 2004 after the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center canceled a medical helicopter flight on its way to pick him up, delaying critical surgery to remove a blood clot in his leg by four hours. ... The four-hour delay consumed precious time that doctors will testify was critical to his survival, court documents show. Minard died three days later. His family believes he would have survived had he received an operation sooner" (Clayworth, 11/9).

KCRG, an NBC affiliate in Iowa, reports on the large numbers of veterans in the state who don't sign up for health care: "Tens of thousands of veterans in Iowa served their country with honor. But many are unaware of one major benefit they earned through their service: Health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. ... About 6 million veterans are enrolled for VA health care - not even one-fourth of the estimated 26 million veterans across the country. ... VA officials acknowledge that some veterans may have been discouraged from applying. Six years ago the government tightened eligibility requirements. Many vets who applied then were not accepted, probably because their incomes were too high" (Aune and Hepker, 11/9).

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