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Maryland Offers Vets Back From War Guidance to Mental Health Help

New Program Aims to Improve Access to VA Treatment

Steve Vogel, Washington Post

 June 5, 2008

Concerned that military veterans in need of mental health care are falling between the cracks in the federal system, Maryland launched a program this week to help service members get treatment.

The legislation to create the program, an initiative of Governor Martin O’Malley’s. administration, was signed into law May 22 and went into effect Sunday.

Under the $2.8 million program, state coordinators will help Maryland veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars get access to mental health treatment from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.   In cases where federal services are unavailable or too slow, the state will pay private providers for the services.

"What we are seeing is either the inability or the unwillingness of the federal government to provide these services," Lt. Governor Anthony G. Brown (D), who spearheaded the effort, said in an interview.

Brown, who served a tour in Iraq as an officer with the Army Reserve said it was appropriate for Maryland to delve into the traditionally federal role of caring for veterans.

"When they take off their uniforms, they are Marylanders, and they belong to us," Brown said. "Maryland wants to hold itself out as a state that supports the effort of its veterans. The state of Maryland is saying that we're putting our money where our mouth is, and we're getting in the game."

The legislation grew out of discussions among state officials in the fall about shortfalls in services for veterans returning from overseas. "We were concerned that these veterans coming back to rural areas of Maryland would not have the behavioral health care they needed," James A. Adkins, Maryland's secretary of Veterans Affairs, said in an interview.

"Everybody agrees that it's a federal responsibility to take care of these veterans when they come home to Crisfield or Leonardtown or wherever," said Adkins, who on Sunday took on a second role with the state as adjutant general overseeing the Maryland National Guard replacing the retiring Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill. "We weren't comfortable the need was being met."

Coordinators hired by the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will serve as liaisons between veterans and the federal government, trying to get veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder access to and information about behavioral, health and substance-abuse services.

"The coordinators will plug the veterans into the federal VA," Adkins said. "If the individual needs the service, they are going to get that service, no matter who has to pay for it."

Although the assistance is available for veterans statewide, the program is focused on rural areas.

The legislation also establishes a Veterans Behavioral Health Advisory Board to identify gaps in services. Board members, whom O'Malley will appoint this month, will have open meetings at several places throughout the state to gather information and provide a report to the General Assembly by the end of the year, Brown said.

"There is an expanding gap between the need and the services being provided," he said.

The legislation, known as the Veterans Behavioral Health Bill, was one of several initiatives passed by the General Assembly this year and signed into law by O'Malley (D).

An $800,000 integration program is meant to help Maryland National Guard members return to their families and civilian jobs after deployment. Other bills expand scholarship opportunities and provide motor vehicle excise tax credits to veterans returning from overseas.

"Veterans returning to Maryland today are facing greater challenges than seen in a generation with repeated deployments at levels not seen since World War II," O'Malley said in a statement upon signing the bills.

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