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Senators Push To Improve Rural Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care

U.S. Sens Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to speed up implementation of a key provision of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which provides grant funding for rural veteran mental health telehealth initiatives.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs has an obligation to provide critical health care services to our nation’s veterans wherever they live,” the senators wrote in a letter to Secretary Denis McDonough. “Rural veterans must be afforded the same level of care VA provides for veterans in more populated areas and this provision is vital to ensuring VA fulfills this mission.”

The senators passed their bipartisan Hannon Act to bolster VA’s mental health workforce and increase rural veterans’ access to mental health care through alternative and local treatment options. Section 701 of the Hannon Act directs VA to provide grant funding to expand existing partnerships or create new ones through the Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations (ATLAS) program. Despite the legislation passing in 2020, VA has delayed implementing the Section 701 telehealth grant program until Fiscal Year 2026. Initially, VA planned to issue these grants in Fiscal Year 2025.

The senators urged VA to expedite implementation in order to provide needed mental health care for veterans, writing: “VA further delaying an already lengthy rollout is absolutely unacceptable and detrimental to veterans. While the committee understands the need for extensive revision when building a grant program, VA has had since October 2020 to plan for this implementation. The acceptable timeframe to review and revise has passed.”

The senators continued, “As Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, our top priority is ensuring quality and timely care for veterans across the country. VA must be held accountable when its cumbersome processes create delays in implementation of crucial grants.”

The senators concluded their letter by highlighting VA’s success providing telehealth services while urging the Department to move swiftly to provide needed mental health care for rural veterans, writing: “VA has been a pioneer of telehealth services that have proven to be a lifeline for rural veterans across the country. Those of us who live in rural areas know that internet services is not always reliable, nor is a lengthy road trip for a single appointment always feasible. It is essential that the expansion of VA’s telehealth services in rural communities be allowed to continue unimpeded by red tape and bureaucratic delays.” One in three veterans receiving VA care use VA telehealth services.

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