Tester, Moran Unveil Bipartisan Legislation to Improve Rural Veterans’ Mental Health Care

The Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans’ Mental Health Act would expand VA rural mental health program and support additional research

(U.S. Senate) – Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) are unveiling bipartisan, bicameral legislation to expand access to mental health care for rural veterans. 

The Senators’ Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans’ Mental Health Act of 2021 would establish three new Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Rural Access Network for Growth Enhancement (RANGE) program centers to provide community-based care and services for rural veterans diagnosed with serious mental health issues, and support additional research on rural veterans’ mental health care needs and treatment options.

“Veterans living in rural states like Montana face many barriers to mental health care that often come at too high a cost,” said Chairman Tester. “Our bipartisan bill will increase access to life-saving care with additional resources proven to meet the unique needs of rural veterans. And, it’ll help treat invisible wounds of war to prevent at-risk veterans from falling through the cracks.”

“Veterans deserve access to high quality health care no matter where they live, including important mental health care and services,” said Ranking Member Moran. “This legislation expands access to critical resources for rural veterans living with serious mental illnesses to help make certain a veteran in crisis is never turned away from receiving the care they need.”  

“When our veterans return home, the care they receive shouldn’t be determined by their zip code, but lack of adequate care in our rural areas can mean a veteran doesn’t get the support they need,” said Representative Cindy Axne. “I want to thank Senator Tester and Senator Moran for honoring Brandon Ketchum, the Iowa veteran who inspired this legislation, with the introduction of this bill in the Senate. This bipartisan—and now bicameral—bill will expand mental health resources in our rural areas and ensure veterans like Sergeant Ketchum can get the care and support they’ve earned.”

In 2016, Sgt. Brandon Ketchum of Davenport died by suicide after he was denied access to mental health services related to his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder at a VA facility in Iowa.

Numerous Veterans Service Organizations endorsed the Senators’ bipartisan effort to connect rural veterans with life-saving mental health care, including Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Wounded Warrior Project, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), The American Legion, Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs (NOVA), and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Montana.

“DAV has long urged enhancement of mental health resources to support veterans in need, especially those who are homeless or at-risk. With a focus on underserved populations, we believe the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Act will help to ensure these veterans can get the critical care they need,” said Joy Ilem, DAV National Legislative Director. “We thank Senators Tester and Moran for taking into account the unique needs of rural veterans, and for continuing to prioritize mental health among those who served.”

“IAVA applauds Chairman Tester and Ranking Member Moran for the introduction of the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Act,” said Jeremy Butler, IAVA CEO. “Veterans in rural areas have challenges in meeting their health needs, including mental health care, and the three new Rural Access Network for Growth Enhancement program centers and their small teams of specialists provided for in the legislation will be an impactful way to meet the needs of many at-risk veterans.”

“With many of our members living in rural and highly rural areas, the VFW supports the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Act of 2021,” said Tammy Barlet, VFW National Legislative Service Associate Director. “The expansion of the Rural Access Network Growth Enhancement Program (RANGE) will provide more veterans access to the coordination of multiple health care and social work professionals to develop a tailored recovery and treatment plan specific to the veteran. In addition to the three new RANGE centers, assessing VA’s rural mental health care and resources is vital to understanding where gaps and barriers remain.”

“All veterans should have access to the mental health care and resources they need to live fulfilling lives after service,” said Jose Ramos, WWP Vice President of Government and Community Relations. “Wounded Warrior Project is committed to making mental health care more accessible for all veterans, and that includes extending more services to those living in rural areas. For this reason, we support the Sgt. Ketchum Veterans Mental Health Act of 2021 which will increase access to intensive outpatient mental health care in rural areas. This legislation will also generate data and evidence to help Congress and VA create more access points to care in the future. We applaud the introduction of this bipartisan legislation and look forward to working with the Committee to see it passed.”

“PVA applauds Senator Tester for the introduction of the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Care Act of 2021 which would help reduce the geographic, distance, and transportation barriers rural veterans face when accessing inpatient and intensive outpatient mental health care through VA,” said Heather Ansley, PVA Associate Executive Director of Government Relations.

“The American Legion has long been troubled by the high suicide rate amongst the nation’s veterans, which has increased over the past 20 years,” said Bill Oxford, The American Legion National Commander. “This increase has often been linked to servicemembers who return from combat struggling with PTSD. While the VA has struggled with giving them the care they need, those living in rural areas are more at-risk because of the lack of healthcare resources available. This legislation will ensure rural veterans have access to healthcare through the creation of rural health care facilities that provide community-based psychotherapy treatment. It will also increase transparency by requiring a study to assess whether the VA has the resources to provide adequate inpatient mental healthcare to rural veterans. We thank the sponsors for this commonsense legislation that prioritizes rural veterans to ensure Sgt. Ketchum’s death is not in vain.”

“As nurses who care for veterans at VA facilities and clinics around the country, we understand the need to provide comprehensive mental health treatment especially in rural areas,” said Kelly Skinner, NOVA President. “NOVA is happy to support the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Care Act of 2021 and thank Senators' Tester and Moran for their leadership on the bill.”

“There is a serious lack of inpatient and residential care across rural America,” said Matt Kuntz, NAMI Montana Executive Director. “Our nation's rural veterans and their loved ones pay a high price for that lack of care. We are fully supportive of the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Care Act of 2021 and believe it could be an essential tool in addressing that lack of acute care for rural veterans who are most in need.”

Text of the Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans’ Mental Health Act is available HERE.