Veteran health care has long been an issue in Georgia. The Atlanta Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Decatur has struggled with unstable leadership and faltering quality, with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs giving it a 1-star rating. The Atlanta VA Medical Center is part of a larger network that receives the lowest patient satisfaction scores in the country. These sites also report low levels of employee satisfaction and over 288 complaints have been filed to the VA inspector general.
Given the apparent need to better serve those who have protected the U.S., state and local governments have begun taking action. There has been an increase in state legislation presented on the matter of veteran mental health in the Georgia General Assembly. Most influentially, local and state initiatives focused on veteran health care, particularly mental health care, have paved the way for programs and institutions separate from the government to take action and improve veteran care in Georgia.
Though these efforts have helped a number of veterans, more needs to be done to support our veterans.
Several bills were introduced in the Georgia General Assembly’s 2019-2020 session on the topic of veteran mental health within the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee. Unfortunately, all of these important pieces of legislation have died or failed.
HB 767 was to create a Commission on Veteran Suicide Prevention. This bill provided that the Department of Public Health would collect suicide statistics in the state and complete an annual report for the newly created commission to study. The data would be used to prevent veteran suicides by making legislative and executive recommendations to the General Assembly and Governor respectively.
HB 894 acknowledged Georgia’s high occurrence of mental health issues and suicide rates among veterans and wished to create a 10 member Joint Study Committee to study this and make legislative recommendations.
HB 770 included the provision of a grant program beginning in 2022 to cover the cost of service dogs for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though each piece of legislation could have helped Georgia’s veterans, they were met with opposition in the Georgia General Assembly. This legislation is important for the health and wellbeing of men and women who have served the United States. A compromise must occur in state government to the extent that legislation providing mental health care for veterans can be implemented for the benefit of all.
Emory University has long been a pioneer for veteran care in the state of Georgia. The institution has programs that support veterans on all levels. With the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans providing pro bono legal services throughout Georgia, the student-led Emory Veterans Association supporting student veterans and their families, and the university’s selection for the VA Nursing Academic Partnership training Emory nursing students in veteran care, it is clear the wellbeing of Georgia veterans is of high importance to the institution.
Most notably, the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program (EHVP) aids post-9/11 veterans struggling with mental health issues affecting their reintegration. The program, which just marked its fifth anniversary, is one of only four academic medical institutions in the country that is supported by the Wounded Warrior Project through the Warrior Care Network initiative. Of the 5 million post- 9/11 veterans and service members that have made the transition from service to civilian life, this single Emory program has helped over 2,300 with struggles ranging from anxiety, brain injury, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the program extended care to include remote programs and telemedicine services.
EHVP at the Emory Brain Health Center focuses its treatment around the correlation and coexistence of mental and physical wounds. A survey in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported veteran respondents’ top health issues: chronic health conditions, mental health conditions and chronic pain conditions. The program’s researchers and health care providers are trailblazing individualized and holistic outpatient treatment, as well as working with important partners such as the Atlanta VA Health Care System.
Fight the War Within
Following the unexpected and tragic suicide of Army Ranger Veteran Specialist Garrett Briggs, his wife, Miranda Briggs, founded a nonprofit based in Savannah, Georgia called “Fight the War Within”. The organization, which began this year in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, helps veterans, service members and first responders alike in their struggle with mental health. Establishing the organization amidst the pandemic was important as isolation has significantly increased the suicide rate of veterans from approximately 22 lives a day to 30.
After Garret Briggs’ passing, his medical records showed the grim reality of a typical veteran’s fight to obtain the necessary medical and mental help that they seek. Fight the War Within ensures that no veteran lacks community connection or goes unheard in their walk with mental health issues. Fostering such a community in a global health crisis sees that the organization holds a series of community events for veterans and their families with COVID-19 precautions. The organization also offers suicide prevention courses providing instruction on how to talk with loved ones about mental health.
Overall, Miranda Briggs’ mission and vision of the Fight the War Within organization is to provide resources and emergency grants to those struggling with mental health issues and inspire the feeling of hope in veterans and their families alike.
Members of the Georgia Assembly must recognize the importance of funding programs for veteran health care, particularly mental health care.
Additionally, cities such as Athens should consider adopting programs such as those afforded by Emory or Fight the War Within, allowing students to become involved in the important research on veteran mental health and the Athens-Clarke County population to benefit from these accessible mental health services.