In one of his final acts as a U.S. senator, Iraq War veteran and Montana Democrat John Walsh implored the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to double the period of automatic medical benefits for post-9/11 combat veterans.

Speaking before the committee Nov. 20, Walsh asked members to increase the automatic eligibility for veterans to get medical care at Veterans Affairs facilities to a full decade from the current five years.

The provision had been included in a massive VA reform bill considered by Congress earlier this year, but that legislation failed to pass the Senate in February.

Walsh then introduced separate legislation, the Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, in March to expand eligibility to 15 years.

"Extending the combat eligibility for prioritized care at the VA is an immediate and affordable option that we should pass this Congress," Walsh told committee members. "We shouldn't wait another day."

Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans automatically receive up to five years of health care at VA from date of separation, regardless of whether they have service-connected illnesses or injuries.

Walsh told committee members that the time frame should be extended to 10 years because some conditions — including mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder — don't develop immediately after combat exposure.

"As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, many American families are welcoming back sons, daughters, husbands and wives who are changed people. ... We owe them the opportunity to heal, whether their wounds are seen or unseen," Walsh said.

A national study on mental health conditions in the U.S., the National Comorbidity Survey, found that roughly 7 percent of people with PTSD seek treatment within a year of a traumatizing event and the average time patients seek treatment is more than five years.

Walsh pressed the Senate to include his proposal in any year-end legislation. Congress returns to Washington on Dec. 1 and could debate several defense and veterans-related bills, including the fiscal 2015 defense authorization and appropriations bills.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Monday he hopes to pass legislation by the end of the year that would improve the VA and Defense Department suicide prevention programs.

Sanders said he hopes Congress will include Walsh's provision in any veterans legislation passed by Dec. 31.

"Overall, I believe that the VA is doing a good job in providing mental health services for veterans, but we have to do better," Sanders said in statement.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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