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Opening Statement of Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman, Committee on Veterans' Affairs

THE COMMITTEE WILL COME TO ORDER.

GOOD MORNING, AND WELCOME TO TODAY’S FULL COMMITTEE HEARING, “HONORING THE COMMITMENT: OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO QUALITY MENTAL HEALTH CARE FOR VETERANS.”

TODAY’S HEARING IS OUR FIRST FULL COMMITTEE HEARING OF THE 113TH CONGRESS AND IT IS ONLY FITTING THAT WE BEGIN OUR OVERSIGHT BY ADDRESSING ONE OF THE MOST PRESSING AND FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES FACING OUR SERVICEMEMBERS, VETERANS, AND THEIR FAMILIES – OUR ABILITY TO PROVIDE TIMELY AND EFFECTIVE MENTAL HEALTH CARE TO VETERANS IN NEED.

THIS ISSUE IS NOT A NEW ONE, BUT IT IS A GROWING ONE.

IN THE LAST SIX YEARS, THERE HAS BEEN A THIRTY-NINE PERCENT INCREASE IN VA’S MENTAL HEALTH CARE BUDGET AND A FORTY-ONE PERCENT INCREASE IN VA’S MENTAL HEALTH CARE STAFF.

UNFORTUNATELY, THOSE SIGNIFICANT INCREASES HAVE NOT RESULTED IN EQUALLY SIGNIFICANT PERFORMANCE AND OUTCOMES.

LESS THAN A YEAR AGO, THE VA INSPECTOR GENERAL RELEASED A REVIEW OF VETERANS MENTAL HEALTH CARE ACCESS THAT PAINTED A DISTURBING PICTURE, SHOWING THAT THE MAJORITY OF VETERANS WHO SEEK MENTAL HEALTH CARE THROUGH VA WAIT FIFTY DAYS, ON AVERAGE, FOR AN EVALUATION.

THAT FIGURE AMOUNTS TO THOUSANDS OF VETERANS IN NEED – VETERANS WHO HAVE RECOGNIZED THEY NEED HELP AND WHO HAVE TAKEN THE HARD STEP OF ASKING FOR IT - BEING TOLD BY THE FEDERAL BUREAUCRACY TASKED WITH CARING FOR THEM THAT THEY HAVE TO WAIT IN LINE BECAUSE VA CANNOT PROVIDE THEM WITH THE TIMELY ACCESS TO CARE THEY NEED TO BEGIN HEALING.  

AND IT GETS WORSE.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, VA RELEASED ITS 2012 SUICIDE DATA REPORT.

THAT REPORT SHOWS, AMONG MANY ALARMING FINDINGS, THAT THE SUICIDE RATE AMONG OUR VETERANS HAS REMAINED STEADY FOR THE PAST TWELVE YEARS, WITH EIGHTEEN TO TWENTY-TWO VETERAN SUICIDE DEATHS PER DAY SINCE 1999.

AS THAT REPORT SO CLEARLY ILLUSTRATES, WHEN A VETERAN IS IN NEED OF CARE, THE DIFFERENCE OF A DAY OR A WEEK OR A MONTH CAN BE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH.

THIS MORNING, THE DEPARTMENT IS GOING TO TESTIFY THAT PROGRESS IS BEING MADE TO INCREASE ACCESS TO MENTAL HEALTH CARE SERVICES AND REDUCE VETERAN SUICIDE.  

THEY WILL PROCLAIM THAT THEY HAVE HIRED JUST OVER THIRTY-TWO HUNDRED ADDITIONAL MENTAL HEALTH CARE PERSONNEL.   

HOWEVER, DESPITE OUR REQUESTS, VA HAS NOT PROVIDED EVIDENCE TO VERIFY ITS EFFORTS.  

AND WHILE I AM AND WILL REMAIN SUPPORTIVE OF THE IMPROVEMENTS THE DEPARTMENT IS ATTEMPTING TO UNDERTAKE INTERNALLY, IT HAS BECOME PAINFULLY CLEAR TO ME THAT VA IS FOCUSED MORE ON ITS PROCESS AND NOT ITS OUTCOMES.

THE TRUE MEASURE OF SUCCESS WITH RESPECT TO MENTAL HEALTH CARE IS NOT HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE HIRED, IT IS HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE HELPED.

SINCE 1999, VA’S MENTAL HEALTH CARE PROGRAMS, BUDGET, AND STAFF HAVE INCREASED EXPONENTIALLY AND THE NUMBER OF VETERANS SEEKING CARE HAS GROWN, YET THE NUMBER OF VETERANS TRAGICALLY TAKING THEIR OWN LIVES HAS REMAINED THE SAME.  

WHAT’S MORE, THE SUICIDE DATA REPORT I MENTIONED EARLIER SHOWS THAT THE DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS OF VETERANS WHO DIE BY SUICIDE IS SIMILAR AMONG THOSE VETERANS WHO ACCESS VA AND THOSE VETERANS WHO DON’T.

SOMETHING IS CLEARLY MISSING.

ON OUR FIRST PANEL THIS MORNING WE WILL HEAR FROM REPRESENTATIVES FROM OUR VETERANS SERVICE ORGANIZATIONS, AN ESTABLISHED VETERANS MENTAL HEALTH RESEARCHER, AND A STATE COMMISSIONER OF VETERANS AFFAIRS.

THREE OF THEM ARE VETERANS THEMSELVES, AND ALL OF THEM WILL TESTIFY THAT THE PROVISION OF MENTAL HEALTH CARE SERVICES THROUGH VA IS SERIOUSLY CHALLENGED AND THAT WHAT IS NEEDED TO FIX IT IS DECIDEDLY NOT MORE OF THE SAME.

LAST NIGHT, THE PRESIDENT ANNOUNCED THAT A YEAR FROM NOW THIRTY FOUR THOUSAND OF OUR SERVICE MEMBERS CURRENTLY SERVING IN AFGHANISTAN WILL BE HOME.
 
THE ONE SIZE FITS ALL PATH THE DEPARTMENT IS ON LEAVES OUR RETURNING VETERANS WITH  NO ASSURANCE THAT CURRENT ISSUES WILL ABATE AND FAILS TO RECOGNIZE THAT ADEQUATELY ADDRESSING THE MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS OF OUR VETERANS IS A TASK THAT VA CANNOT HANDLE ALONE.

IN ORDER TO BE EFFECTIVE, VA MUST EMBRACE AN INTEGRATED CARE DELIVERY MODEL THAT DOES NOT WAIT FOR VETERANS TO COME TO THEM, BUT INSTEAD MEETS THEM WHERE THEY ARE.  

VA MUST STAND READY TO TREAT OUR VETERANS WHERE AND HOW OUR VETERANS WANT, NOT JUST WHERE AND HOW VA WANTS.

I CAN TELL YOU THIS MORNING THAT OUR VETERANS ARE IN TOWNS AND CITIES AND COMMUNITIES ALL ACROSS THIS COUNTRY AND THE CARE THEY WANT IS CARE THAT RECOGNIZES AND RESPECTS THEIR OWN UNIQUE CIRCUMSTANCES, PREFERENCES, AND HOPES.

THANK YOU ALL FOR BEING HERE TODAY.