Tester Presses VA to Improve Rural Veterans’ Mental Health Care

Chairman urged VA Secretary McDonough to improve rural veterans’ access to quality mental health care and address mental health care staffing shortages

(Big Sandy, Mont.) – Continuing his push to improve veterans’ access to essential mental health care, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for answers following recent reports of improper mental health care practices at VA medical facilities.

“Despite VA’s department-wide focus on mental health and the progress made towards increasing eligibility and veteran access to mental health care over the last few years, the report states that VA facilities do not have enough mental health services to meet veteran demand,” wrote Tester in a letter to Secretary Denis McDonough. “More needs to be done, specifically in rural areas, to keep pace with increased demand and prevent gaps in care that can have dire impacts on veterans and their families.”

Tester underscored how losing just one or two providers in rural areas can have a “massive impact” on veterans’ access to essential mental health care, and how it can take years to fill their vacancies and encourage veteran patients to return to care. The Senator cited regions like Eastern Montana, where the availability of in-person providers and connectivity to access telehealth are not certain and how this lost time and access created by mental health clinician vacancies can be life threatening.

Urging VA to ensure veterans have access to the necessary mental health care they need no matter where they live, Tester continued: “…[I]n many rural areas, VA cannot rely on its community provider network because VA is the only mental health care provider in the area. In the face of a mental health care provider shortage nationwide, VA must double down and lead the effort to address this crisis because we made a promise to provide timely health care to our veterans no matter where they are located.”

The Senator cited how while the number of veterans receiving mental health care services from the Veterans Health Administration grew by 83%, VA is currently facing a shortage of mental health care professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists.

Tester also highlighted a ProPublica article that detailed how the lack of same day mental health care appointments at the VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Chico, California resulted in devastating consequences for two veterans and noted his concern this was not an isolated issue considering VA’s shortage of mental health care providers.

Tester closed his letter by pressing VA to swiftly answer a series of questions related to its mental health care staffing and practices. Reiterating his commitment to helping VA improve these life-saving services and carry out its mission of providing veterans quality mental health care, Tester said: “VA must continue to lead the effort to increase the number of mental health providers and ensure those providers are in locations where veterans need them most. I look forward to working closely with you to continue to ensure Congress is providing VA with the resources and authorities it needs to carry out that mission.”

Tester has been a leading advocate for expanding veterans’ access to life-saving mental health care, including in rural areas. He championed the Hannon Act to bolster VA’s mental health workforce and increase rural veterans’ access to care through alternative and local treatment options. Tester also led the Support The Resilience of Our Nation’s Great (STRONG) Veterans Act to strengthen veterans’ access to life-saving tools like the Veterans Crisis Line, expand mental health care options, and support mental health research at VA.

Continuing his efforts this Congress to improve veterans’ mental health care, Tester chaired a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing last September to demand answers from VA officials about a damning VA OIG report regarding the Veterans Crisis Line. The Senator is also spearheading the bipartisan Not Just a Number Act to require VA to take a more comprehensive look at factors that best prevent veteran suicide, and the Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act to improve veterans’ access to lifesaving residential treatment programs for mental health and substance use disorder.

Read Tester’s full letter to McDonough HERE.