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Military Leaders: Sequester Cuts Will Prevent Veterans From Accessing Mental Health Services

By Sy Mukherjee  

"Military Leaders: Sequester Cuts Will Prevent Veterans From Accessing Mental Health Services"

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During a hearing before the House Military Personnel Subcommittee Wednesday, American civilian and military leaders issued lawmakers a stark warning: federal budget cutbacks under the so-called “sequester” will leave veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses without access to the health care that they desperately need.

The sequester cuts will force multiple governmental departments to cut back on programs or eliminate them entirely. Charged with taking care of the staggering percentage of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with PTSD, the Defense Department has had to increasingly rely on civilian mental health specialists to address the backlog. In fact, out of the 2,118 psychologists, 809 psychiatrists, and 2,533 social workers now employed by the military — a substantial increase over past years — over half are civilians. But under sequestration, the Department has been bracing for massive cuts to this civilian workforce, and is preparing to send notices to “more than 800,000 Defense Department civilian workers telling them that once-a-week unpaid furloughs will begin in April and continue for 22 weeks.”

As Military.com reports, that is particularly problematic for the military when it comes to these civilian mental health specialists because “they have options to seek employment elsewhere” and might be tempted to do so seeing as they are not exempt from the furloughs:

Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s surgeon general, has lobbied to exempt the mental health specialists from furloughs to retain them for treating PTSD. The Pentagon has said that 20 percent of the civilian workforce will be exempt from furloughs. However, it did not look like the mental health specialists would receive that exemption, said Col. Rebecca Porter, the chief of Behavioral Health in Horoho’s office.

“We value these individuals greatly,” Porter said of the mental health workers. “If they start to go out the door, it’s going to take a lot longer for us to rebuild that” mental health workforce, Porter told a defense writers breakfast Tuesday.

“We have in the past offered retention bonuses, but that’s not specifically on the table now,” said Porter, a former military police officer and now a clinical psychologist whose main task is treating PTSD in the Army.

Her comments echoed those of Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, who told a Senate hearing last month that “before sequestration, we allocated the dollars and positions to increase military and civilian mental health providers.”

“The problem is there are not enough out there,” Odierno said. “Now what’s going to happen is we’re going to have to reduce the number we already have.”

The officials’ testimony is a clear-cut demonstration of the real world consequences brought on by budget cuts that lawmakers and the media tend to discuss in rather shallow terms. Budget cuts to military health care programs are also particularly cruel considering the already-massive backlog of over 900,000 veterans’ benefit claims — a problem that will be exacerbated as more military personnel return home from the waning Afghan war. Those veterans will already be plagued by poverty and a bleak economic outlook when they return home — and under sequestration, their mental health care outlook is even worse.

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