Each Veterans Day, we say “thank you for your service” to the millions of Americans who have selflessly placed themselves in harm’s way. Brave men and women have answered the call to serve their country since the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, and they continue to deploy to the darkest corners of the world, leaving behind loved ones for months or years on end.
There is a cost associated with fighting wars for two decades, now borne by multiple generations from the same family. Young service members fighting in Afghanistan today were born after Sept. 11, 2001, carrying on the service of their parents who deployed to these same countries. We continue to lose one veteran and active duty service member nearly every hour of every day to suicide. The Department of Defense recently reported an increase of suicide by 20 percent in the COVID-19 era from March to September, and from 2017 to 2018 suicides from Special Operation Forces tripled.
With the invisible wounds to mental health caused by brain injuries claiming the lives of our veterans at unprecedented rates, simply saying “thank you” begins to ring hollow. The inability of this nation to properly care for veterans when they come home from war is inexcusable. Action is required, and we must reimagine what is possible to replace a broken paradigm. One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is the explosion and proven effectiveness of telehealth. Unfortunately, there are invisible lines around each state that serve as barriers to allowing licensed clinicians to provide lifesaving care for veterans across state lines.
We now have an opportunity to significantly impact this national disgrace of veteran suicide by establishing permanent interstate compacts that will allow veterans anywhere in the United States access to treatments for these complex invisible wounds incurred during their service.
Executive orders signed by governors during the pandemic have eased telehealth restrictions, making it easier for licensed private-sector clinicians to provide care across state lines. However, the temporary nature of these orders and the lack of a national standard makes care for veterans uncertain at a time when certainty is most needed.
Home Base is a Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital program focused solely on treating the invisible wounds at no cost to our veterans and families. For more than a decade, we have treated veterans from across the country — saving thousands of lives through evidence-based care provided by top-tier clinicians and breakthrough clinical programs, including telehealth.
In 2018, Congress approved the VA MISSION Act, which authorized the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct telehealth anywhere in the United States across all state lines. This codified that telehealth from anywhere to anywhere is achievable and effective. We know the VA cannot fight this battle alone and, with more than half of the 17 million veterans in the United States receiving care from the private sector, we have an opportunity — with a stroke of the pen — to significantly improve access currently not available.
A two-step solution is required. States must establish interstate compact agreements that allow standard licensing reciprocity for clinicians who are specifically providing telehealth care for veterans. Simultaneously, we need new solutions from Congress and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to establish a national support structure that aligns with these interstate compacts.
As the first and largest private-sector clinic in the country devoted to healing the invisible wounds of our warriors and their families, Home Base remains committed to increasing access to care. A veteran seeking lifesaving care from Home Base via telehealth 34 miles away in Salem, N.H., should not be denied the same care provided to a veteran living 140 miles away in North Adams. Our “thank you” to those who have given all in service to our country should not be limited by state lines. Creating a permanent veteran-specific interstate compact will increase access to care and will save lives, serving as a critical step in our fight to stem the tide of veteran suicide.
Retired US Army Brigadier General Jack Hammond is executive director and Michael Allard is chief operating officer of Home Base.