AUGUSTA — As a mental health caseworker, Jerry DeWitt has seen veterans in crisis linger on “suicide watch” in Maine emergency rooms for days – sometimes weeks – because there’s no space for them at federal facilities.
DeWitt, who is retired Army, said he has seen leadership come and go at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over the decades, yet the access-to-care problems at the VA continue.
“So if you’re relying on the VA to do anything, you might as well just forget it,” the New Gloucester resident told lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Wednesday. “We need to step up, as the state of Maine, and support our veterans.”
DeWitt was one of several veterans who testified in support of a bill that would direct the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services to step into that gap by providing clinical mental health care, for the first time, around the state. The goal of the bill, sponsored by Marine Corps veteran Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, is to address concerns that care delays – and an over-emphasis on prescriptions, not counseling – is hurting Maine veterans who need immediate assistance.
“I’m not trying to blame the VA here,” said Golden, who shared his own frustrations about the lack of follow-up care after receiving a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis from combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “I think the VA does the best that it can with the resources it has, and it often does a very good job. But it is a vast bureaucratic system that is far removed from the communities that veterans live in. And too many veterans do manage to fall through the cracks.”
opposition fears failing veterans
But the bill carries a $1 million price tag to hire eight social workers located at bureau field offices and provide grants to other mental health care providers. And Adria Horn, the director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services, said the measure proposes a fundamental mission change for an agency with no experience providing clinical mental health care and no additional office space for the eight social workers plus required managers.
So while she fully supports improved access to mental health care, Horn said the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management opposes Golden’s bill, L.D. 1231.
“There are just a lot of questions about the implementation,” said Horn, a West Point graduate who deployed overseas five times during a 14-year Army career. “The last thing I ever want to do is take a program that had amazing intent and then fail in execution. Because the only people who feel the failure are the veterans. And that is the last population I am trying to … burden, ever.”
The VA has been plagued by access-to-care delays, a massive claims backlog and internal scandals for years. While the VA has hired thousands of additional mental health providers in recent years, a recent study by the department estimated that 20 veterans commit suicide every day nationwide. The majority of those who take their own lives were not regular users of the VA.
People who spoke in support of Golden’s bill Wednesday talked about distrust and frustrations with the VA as well as some veterans’ tendency to attempt to tough-it-out alone or self-medicate. But they also said something needs to be done to help connect with more veterans and let them know help is available.
Matthew Jabaut, a judge advocate and chairman of the American Legion’s legislation committee, recounted how he was initially offered “a bunch of pills” during his first interaction with the VA, which he did not want. A year had passed before he actually met with a therapist, Jabaut said.
“Every person who has come up here has talked about, ‘I was lucky’ or ‘This case was lucky’” because they received care, Jabaut said. “We should not rely on luck when it comes to the health, mental health, life and death of our veterans. We just shouldn’t. And we need to have the processes and people in place to help.”
REPEATING MISTAKES OF THE PAST
Vietnam veteran and retired federal law enforcement officer William Jefferson of Buxton asked committee members if he looked like a disabled veteran. Jefferson then said he still regularly dreams of his experiences and that “other symptoms persist in spite of the fact that my war happened nearly 50 years ago.”
“Need I point out, really, that the mistakes that were made with respect to the failure to provide mental health support to my generation of veterans are being repeated as though we had learned nothing from 50-plus years of suffering and extensive research in the arena of what we have finally, officially recognized as post-traumatic stress?” Jefferson said.
Sen. Brownie Carson, who served as an infantry platoon commander with the Marines in Vietnam, listed himself as one of the “lucky ones” because he wasn’t killed and he received top-notch care at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
“But that doesn’t happen to many vets, and it particularly doesn’t happen to many of the vets – many of whom we know from Iraq and Afghanistan – who have been asked to do not one tour … but two or three or four or even more tours,” said Carson, D-Harpswell.
During her testimony, Horn said four of the eight Bureau of Veterans’ Services field offices around Maine already are located at federal facilities that provide mental health counseling, and bureau staff frequently refer clients to the federal offices. But Horn said there is a clear need for case management in Maine to help veterans navigate the system. And she said the Legislature and the public need to decide whether the bureau needs to do things better for Maine’s veteran population.
“If there are areas where the general public feels there is a huge deficiency, I am open to any type of conversation,” Horn said. “If you feel that the mission is not meeting the needs of Maine veterans, then we need to engage it on a much broader scale. Because I think that’s what this bill does, it proposes something that really gets at changing the (bureau) mission.”
Golden, who is assistant majority leader in the Maine House, said he was not tied to the current draft of his bill or to housing the mental health program within the Bureau of Veterans’ Services. Golden said he plans to talk about the issue with Mary Mayhew, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, next week.
“I know that our state can’t afford to do everything for our veterans, but I do think a discussion about whether or not we can pitch in a little toward catching those veterans who do fall through the cracks is a discussion the Legislature should have,” Golden said. “We have a more than $6 billion budget. This bill is a fraction of it.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: