On April 27, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies held a hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) proposed investments in several health programs, including those focused on mental health.
In her opening statement, subcommittee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) commended the VA’s continued investments in key areas, including women’s health, mental health and substance use, and homelessness. “[I]t’s really heartening to see this budget invests in so many key areas that make a difference in the lives of veterans,” she stated. Emphasizing the need to address the unique social and behavioral challenges faced by veterans, she noted, “We have also seen increased need in mental health programs and homelessness programs, as veterans continue to be at too great a risk for unstable housing, suicide, and substance use.” She concluded her testimony by highlighting a new model of care called the Whole Health Program, which aims to improve health outcomes and reduce costs by considering the “physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental needs of veterans.”
In her testimony, Erica Scavella, MD, assistant under secretary for health for Clinical Services at the Veterans Health Administration, described the VA’s efforts to ensure that the nation’s veterans have access to timely and high-quality health care, including mental and behavioral health services. “Both physical and mental health issues, including opioid and substance use disorders, require integrated and veteran-centered approaches to treatment,” she said. Scavella also touched upon the department’s work to expand access to crisis care and reduce the rate of suicide in the veteran population, such as the consolidation of the veterans’ crisis line into the national 988 mental health crisis hotline.
Lawmakers also broached the department’s efforts to expand access to substance use disorder treatment among veterans and, more specifically, the number of VA providers authorized to prescribe buprenorphine. David Carroll, PhD, executive director of the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for the Veterans Health Administration, described the department’s ongoing efforts to expand access to evidence-based, medication-assisted treatments for substance use disorders, noting, “[w]e are working with other federal partners across the system, all of the other federal cabinet-level agencies, to have appropriate regulation and licensing.”
Carroll also discussed the VA’s work on integrating substance use disorder treatment into the primary care setting. He cited the department’s Stepped Care for Opioid Use Disorder, Train the Trainer (SCOUTT) initiative, which aims to facilitate access to medication-assisted treatments in the primary care setting and has substantially grown since its inception. In addition, Caroll described the department’s efforts to support the “whole veteran” through the provision of peer-to-peer services and employment programs.