05.20.08

Burr Introduces Veterans Mental Health Treatment First Act

Wellness Stipends Provide New Incentive for Veterans To Get Treatment For PTSD And Other Mental Health Disorders

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, today introduced the Veterans Mental Health Treatment First Act, which places a greater emphasis on treating veterans with mental health disorders and will provide prevention and wellness incentives for those veterans to seek treatment. The bill creates a new voluntary program focusing on treatment and recovery for mental health disorders like depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorder. The program would also treat substance abuse problems stemming from these illnesses.

"Our current VA system does not effectively get veterans into treatment for mental health disorders," Burr said. "Thousands of our veterans suffer from PTSD and they need treatment. This legislation will give veterans an incentive to get treatment for PTSD and other mental health disorders."

Veterans who enroll in the voluntary program would work with a VA clinician to develop an individual mental health treatment plan. Any veteran who is diagnosed with PTSD, depression, or anxiety disorder related to their military service would be eligible, regardless of their disability claims status. Those who enroll in the program would receive financial incentives, known as wellness stipends, for adhering to the prescribed treatment program.

The financial incentive for program participants is based on the veteran's disability claim status. Veterans with no disability rating or pending disability claim for a covered mental illness can receive up to $11,000 in wellness stipends for following and completing a treatment program and withholding disability claims for one year. Participants would receive $3,000 upon diagnosis and enrollment, $1,500 for every 90 days of treatment, and $3,000 when they successfully complete the program. Veterans who aren't receiving disability benefits but have a claim pending may suspend their claim and receive the total wellness stipend. Veterans receiving disability benefits or who want to continue filing disability claims may still participate in this program, but will only receive one third of the full wellness stipend.

Currently, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), charged with treating PTSD, and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which provides disability benefits, are isolated from one another. One side focuses health and wellness and the other focuses on awarding compensation. Under this system, disability compensation can be awarded and increased over the years without a veteran ever receiving medical treatment.

Both the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission and the Dole-Shalala Commission recommended the VA take a more aggressive approach to treating mental health disorders, especially PTSD.

"We owe it to our veterans to first help them recover and lead healthier lives. I firmly believe we can help veterans recover from mental health disorders and return to a normal life by passing this legislation," Burr added.