Tester Urges Timely and Confidential Mental Health Care for Servicemembers in Need

Following delays in care at the Defense Health Agency, Tester cautions Secretary Esper: “All servicemembers need to be taken seriously”

(Big Sandy, Mont.) – Following reports of delayed care, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is urging the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide timely and confidential health care for servicemembers suffering from mental health conditions.  

Reports show that servicemembers often do not receive timely care after identifying mental health concerns to providers. In one recent case, a servicemember detailed his personal experience with the Defense Health Agency (DHA) and its contractors’ failing to refer him for behavioral health care in a timely manner while protecting his confidentiality. This servicemember self-identified mental health concerns and expressed a need for treatment to a provider. Only after numerous attempts—over the course of multiple weeks—was the servicemember successful in scheduling a behavioral health appointment.

“Not only was this servicemember’s request for a mental health referral ignored, a digital profile was made, which could have jeopardized his privacy within his unit, rather than a direct communication between his provider and his command,” wrote Tester. “When mental health concerns and suicide ideation are not handled properly, whether through a servicemember’s chain or behavioral health team, that individual can fall through the cracks, have privacy compromised, or have a career negatively affected.”

In his letter, Tester requested that DoD and DHA review their process for mental health referrals, including when a contractor is involved, in order to ensure all servicemembers get the mental health care they need.

“This servicemember’s situation is cautionary as the results could have been far worse, even as he was actively seeking help,” Tester continued. “All servicemembers need to be taken seriously and know that they can rely on the Department and its contractors to provide the health care they need and deserve.”

In 2018, 325 active duty servicemembers, along with 81 Reservists and 135 members of the National Guard, died by suicide. Guardsmen and Reservists often struggle to access the same care as their active duty counterparts because they often live far from military installations. Tester introduced the Care and Readiness Enhancement (CARE) for Reservists Act to address the high rate of suicide among members of the National Guard and Reserve by providing readjustment counseling, related outpatient services, and mental health programs to help them return to civilian life. The bill would allow DoD to fund critical behavioral or mental care, regardless of whether that Reservist is within his or her pre-deployment window.

Senator Tester also introduced the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act in an effort to assist military members and veterans struggling with unseen wounds of war when transitioning to civilian life. This bipartisan and comprehensive legislation would improve U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health care services by expanding access to care for veterans including telehealth and alternative therapies, and increase oversight over VA's mental health programs.

Read Tester’s full letter to Secretary Esper HERE.