Roy Blunt: Mental, physical health issues should be treated same

One in four Americans has a diagnosable mental health disorder that is identifiable and treatable, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said that despite the latter, the problem is not being adequately addressed. Blunt, a Missouri Republican, has teamed up with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to try to find a fix. On Wednesday, he made several stops in Missouri — including Joplin — to meet with mental health stakeholders and promote his Excellence in Mental Health Act, which passed the Senate earlier this year.

Blunt’s bill would allow integration of physical health, mental health and substance abuse treatment in certified community behavioral health centers, and allow community mental health centers to be classified as such. The program initially would be piloted in eight states.

“One of my goals is to see that before we’re done with this discussion that we treat mental health like physical health, and frankly, it’s hard to separate the two,” he said.

Paula Baker, president of Freeman Health System in Joplin, said that each month, dozens of patients enter Freeman Hospital West with physical injuries related directly to behavioral and mental health problems. The integration of the two types of care would be relatively easy, she said, and would come at a minimal cost to health care providers.

In addition to representatives from Freeman Health System and Sisters of Mercy Health System, Blunt was joined at Freeman Hospital West by local education officials, including C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin School District.

“We’re the front line of defense,” Huff said. “We see these children that eventually become adults.” Joplin schools have been part of a program with Freeman’s Ozark Center to help integrate mental health care components into the schools, but the grant funding is diminishing, he said.

While mental health issues are prevalent in the broader society, they also are found in the veterans’ community, and that problem is not expected to shrink as thousands of troops return home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Earlier in the day, Blunt visited the John Cochran Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis to discuss mental health as it relates to veterans. The visit came as the Department of Veterans Affairs is under fire, facing accusations of secret waiting lists that may have led to the deaths of some patients.

Blunt in Joplin said the problem at the VA is not funding. Instead, he said, the issue is prioritization and efficiency. “You have to make sure the resources are dedicated in the right way,” he said. He said he thinks the whole model ought to be rethought to handle the new generation of veterans, including consideration of a sort of voucher for veterans to use private health care.

On Wednesday, several members of Congress from both parties joined others in calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

Blunt said Shinseki’s resignation would be “too easy” and would not ultimately address the underlying problems.

“It’s a big enough problem that someone resigning or the Congress thinking you can solve it by giving them even more money is not going to solve this problem,” he said. “The facts are there that need to be put together. The president needs to take responsibility for the government.”

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