Obama Wants Better Mental Health Screenings for Service Members

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By Philip Elliott
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007; 8:14 PM

CONWAY, N.H. (AP) -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Sunday the country is not providing enough mental health services for active duty troops and veterans. He proposed spending hundreds of million dollars more each year for better care.

"We cannot expect our young men and women to serve in our armed forces, if we are not making sure they get the treatment they deserve," Obama said during a town hall-style meeting that drew more than 1,000 people to a middle school gym.

"That should be part of the sacred pact we make with our veterans," he said.

Traveling over the Memorial Day weekend with his family in this early nominating state, the Illinois senator urged the Pentagon to recruit more mental health professions to help identify and treat problems. He said improvements are needed at every stage of military service: recruitment, deployment and re-entry into civilian life.

"Let's lead, by showing the world how we treat our veterans when they come home. ... We still don't make sure those who have problems have the adequate counseling; we don't help families the way we should," Obama said.

Obama has made his opposition to the war in Iraq a central part of his campaign. His fervent opposition has helped rally anti-war voters. Obama's criticism of the war on Sunday again prompted a standing ovation, complete with whoops and hollers.

Critics note Obama was serving in the Illinois Senate when Congress authorized the war in Iraq.

According to Obama's plan, mental health treatment would be a regular part of military life. There would be improved screening and treatment and no denial of benefits due to pre-existing conditions. Military families would receive more counseling and support.

Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said that for the past four years, the Defense Department aggressively has reached out to support the troops before, during and after their deployments.

"We have screened the health, including the mental health, of more than 1 million service members," he said. "We have placed combat stress/mental health teams in the theater to address needs and issues that arise during deployments. We have designed numerous soldier-and-family support systems that identify problems early and prevent them."

Upton said the Pentagon also has a new program to meet with every service member three to six months after the return home.

Obama aides said he would propose increasing the Veterans Affairs Department's budget. The changes he advocates are expected to cost several hundred million dollars a year, they said.

To help cover the cost, Obama proposed better collection of unpaid taxes owed by defense contractors. A second source could come from recovering more money from third-party payers at Defense Department and VA hospitals.

An internal VA review released this month said veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are at increased risk of suicide because not all agency health clinics have 24-hour mental care available.

The report by department's inspector general was the first comprehensive look at VA mental health care, particularly suicide prevention.

Already strained troops and veterans say they are suffering more psychological problems due to repeated and extended deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Earlier in May, a panel of medical experts said the surge in the number of veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder requires development of better tests to evaluate affected personnel and determine how best to compensate them.


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