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Fla. lawmaker looks outside VA to fill mental care gap

Veterans often face long waits after seeking help

WASHINGTON — Veterans who have trouble getting timely mental health care from Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics should also have access to thousands of health care providers who care for military personnel and their families, says the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The proposal by Representative Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida, borrows from the playbook of Republican Mitt Romney, who raised the idea of tapping into the military’s Tricare network of doctors during the course of the presidential campaign.

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‘‘We can double overnight the number of providers for those who are in need,’’ Miller said in an interview. ‘‘Eighteen veterans a day commit suicide in this country. Nobody thinks that is acceptable.’’

The VA has beefed up its mental health staff over the years to try to keep up with the needs of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but a critical inspector general’s report last year found that about half of those seeking care for the first time waited about 50 days before getting a full evaluation.

The VA had been reporting that the vast majority of those patients were getting care within 14 days.

Shortly before that report was released, the VA announced it would be adding 1,900 mental health professionals to its staff.

VA officials said the department has made good progress on the hires, but they could not provide specific numbers yet.

Miller says tapping into Tricare’s network of psychologists and psychiatrists would allow many veterans to get care closer to home, particularly those who live in rural communities.

He does not have an estimated price tag, but says that whatever it is, that is part of the cost of war.

His proposed expansion would only apply to mental health care.

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