Military veterans are promised top-level care for service-related injuries. For too many veterans who need mental health treatment, however, that care is simply too far away.

Care is going to get a lot closer for some Maine veterans, thanks to a project announced last week for the Togus VA Medical Center outside of Augusta. The 24-bed program for substance use disorder and mental health treatment, expected to take its first patients in 2022, fills a hole in veteran care in Maine.

But across the country, there are many more.

More than 18% of the service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, about 300,000 veterans, according to a study by the RAND Corp. Nearly 13% of post-2001 veterans have substance use disorder, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Veterans, however, often have trouble accessing care, particularly in rural areas where providers, both through the VA and elsewhere, are harder to find, for both mental health care and the treatment of substance use disorder.

The RAND Corp. study found “substantial unmet needs” in the care available for PTSD and depression, and said the system needs “greater capacity.”

The lack of access to mental health services is a leading factor in the high rate of veteran suicide, which has stayed stubbornly highparticularly in rural areas — even as significant resources have been put into lowering it.

Maine veterans are offered a range of mental health services, through Togus and elsewhere. But veterans with more significant mental health needs requiring inpatient care must go out of state to find it through the VA.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, has taken on this issue since he was representing Lewiston in the Legislature. Golden, who was diagnosed with PTSD after serving in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, secured $5 million for long-term mental health care for veterans in a spending bill passed last year. He pushed for another $20 million this year in an appropriations measure that has passed the House of Representatives and is waiting for action in the Senate.

Golden, along with the other three members of the Maine congressional delegation, lobbied successfully for some of that money to be used for the facility at Togus. Coming soon, Maine veterans in mental health crisis will have an option for care that is closer to home.

That should be the same for all veterans, who whether in crisis or in need of less intensive treatment, should be able to access care near their home, where they can be close to their family and support system. It can be done by building up a network of public and private providers, using inpatient and outpatient care and telemedicine.

That’s the promise made to people who serve their country, and it should be kept.

 


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