WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Joni Ernst proposed legislation Monday that would allow military veterans to get mental health care outside the Veterans Affairs system until they receive help from the agency.
In her first floor speech since taking office in January, Ernst, an Iraq War veteran, devoted nearly all of her remarks to the needs of military veterans, saying they're not getting enough help transitioning back to civilian life.
Ernst said her bill — the Prioritizing Veterans' Access to Mental Health Care Act — would, among other things, allow veterans to immediately receive mental health care from outside the VA if they aren't already receiving timely care through the agency. Her proposal wouild remove distance and wait-time requirements currently in place.
"This legislation puts veterans' mental health care first and foremost, provides a back-stop to VA mental health care, and prioritizes incentives to hire more mental health care professionals at the Department of Veterans Affairs," Ernst said in her 11-minute speech.
Ernst, viewed by some political pundits as a rising GOP star, has presided over the Senate before, but Monday marked her first time delivering a full-length floor speech on her top priority, a tradition among freshman senators.
The VA is reeling from last year's revelations that officials at agency medical centers had manipulated patient records to hide long wait times for care. In November, the VA's chief consultant for mental health said the average wait time for a mental health appointment was 36 days.
"Congress nor the VA should be an obstacle to affording a veteran potentially lifesaving mental health treatment," Ernst said. "We can, and must, do better for our veterans."
She cited one VA study's findings that 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Ernst, the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate, specifically mentioned one Vietnam War veteran she heard from who said he had twice attempted suicide after deciding he had nowhere to turn.
"I hope this legislation will receive broad bipartisan support, because ensuring our veterans have access to the mental health they deserve is not a conservative or liberal concept," Ernst said. "It's not a Republican or Democratic idea."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Ernst and her bill following the speech.
"I expect it will enjoy broad, bipartisan support, particularly with the sponsor having such firsthand knowledge of the needs of these returning veterans," he said.