Faced with a Veterans’ Affairs Department (VA) overwhelmed by medical claims and more and more American soldiers returning from the war in Afghanistan, the state of New Mexico has decided to provide recently-discharged veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with a critical resource: one year of free mental health services.
As per New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary Timothy Hale, “This is the first collaborative effort between private and state agencies in the country to provide statewide pro-bono mental health counseling for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. This means nearly 500 veterans in the state can receive the immediate help they need now rather than waiting for any veterans’ benefits paperwork to be filled out and processed – which can take awhile to be completed.”
That’s crucial for the soldiers returning home from recent conflicts, considering that the VA has a backlog of over 900,000 unprocessed medical claims — and that’s just from current veterans. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, that problem will be exacerbated further, particularly for mental health care claims. By the VA’s own estimates, at least 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) — and that number could potentially be much higher considering the sky-high rates of suicide and homelessness among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
The program is being sponsored by a combination of state and federal Access To Recovery (ATR) programs, as well as local providers and nonprofits. On the webpage for the new program, New Mexico ATR specifically cites VA backlogs and waiting periods associated with claims-processing as a major reason that New Mexican veterans might want to consider the program, along with “previous failures accessing and navigating the system,” transportation barriers, and “the stigma related with mental health care.”
While the collaborative public-private partnership will relieve a major burden for New Mexican veterans by enhancing access to care and shielding them from the high costs of mental health treatment, such efforts aren’t necessarily fiscally feasible in other states. New Mexico’s ATR program — which is funded substantially through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — is one of the best in the nation, and therefore receives enhanced federal funding. So while New Mexico may be shielded from the effects of looming federal budget cuts to departments such as the SAMHSA and the VA, veterans in other states might not be so lucky.