Legislation for Women Veterans and Mental Health Care
One of the first pieces of legislation that specifies mental health care for women veterans is S. 2344 – Veterans’ Medical Programs Amendments of 1992. This law dictated that the VA Secretary develop a planning program for post-traumatic stress disorder, which included a special consideration pertaining to “the treatment needs of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who are women, of such veterans who are ethnic minorities (including Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and Native Alaskans), and of such veterans who suffer from substance abuse problems in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder.”
In reaction to the Tailhook Scandal, but a few days prior to the congressional hearing covering that incident, H.R. 5193 - Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 became law. It directed that from the enactment of the law up until December 31, 1995, to “the period through December 31, 1995, the Secretary may provide counseling to a woman veteran whom the Secretary determines requires such counseling to overcome psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a mental health professional employed by the Department, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the veteran was serving on active duty.” The problem with this legislation is that it has an expiration date and that it does not require the VA to provide such health care. It also stipulates who is eligible for this treatment, which is that “a veteran must seek such counseling from the Secretary within two years after the date of the veteran's discharge or release from active military, naval, or air service.”
Following the expiration of the authorization in H.R. 5193, H.R. 3118 – Veterans’ Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 ordered the Center for Women Veterans to assess the use “by women veterans of health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs, including counseling for sexual trauma and mental health services.” The date was due to Congress no later than April 1, 1997, and every April 1st of the following two years. This law also extended the mental health counseling granted in H.R. 5193 from 1995 to 1998. Just a little over a year later, the H.R. 2401 – National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 1994 became law with the authorization to establish the Defense Women’s Health Research Center. This center would research mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. But sadly, it does not directly establish new or recommended mental health care.
After the post-9/11 wars started, suicide became a hot topic when those service members became veterans. In 2007, Congress passed H.R. 327 - Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act. This law directed the VA Secretary to develop and implement a comprehensive program designed to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans. This law also created what many know as the Veteran Crisis Line, which is now part of the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Any person can dial 9-8-8, and they are connected to a hotline to help them in a time of crisis. Veterans would be directed to the Veteran Crisis Line department. Sadly, this bill did not include anything to directly help female veterans and only directed the VA Secretary to research sexual trauma.
The very next year, Congress passed S. 2162 – Veterans’ Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008. This law made the requirement of the biannual report from the Women’s Advisory Committee to Congress permanent instead of expiring. It also required the VA Secretary to ensure that the domiciliary care programs for women veterans within the Veterans’ Health Administration. There have been complaints of women veterans fearing for their safety and mental well-being while they were staying in VA facilities. Military sexual trauma is a common reason for admission into a resident or inpatient VA facility, and often those suffering from MST are fearful of anyone of the same sex as their abusers. This problem does not appear to be solved as there are still complaints being made.
It was not until 8 years later did Congress pass the first law specifically for women veterans and mental health or suicide, S.2487 - Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act. This law directed the VA Secretary to identify mental health care and suicide prevention programs and metrics that effectively treat women veterans as part of the evaluation of such programs by the Secretary. During the Senate hearing to discuss this bill prior to the vote, Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat from California) stated, “Last year, a VA study found that female veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of non-veteran women--six times the rate of non-veteran women--and the rates are even higher among younger veterans. For women between the ages of 18 and 29, the rate increases to nearly 12 times the civilian rate. Something is horribly wrong here. It is heartbreaking. It is unacceptable. We are in a position, I think, to address it in this bill.” (But what effect did this law have? Was it reviewed later?)
The next law to be passed for women veterans is H.R. 8247 - Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care, and Treatment Act of 2020 (COMPACT). This law, passed on December 5, 2020, is to make certain improvements relating to the transition of individuals to services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, suicide prevention for veterans, care and services for women veterans, and for other purposes. While this law doesn’t have any direct effect on women veterans and mental health, it did order a report on locations where women veterans are using health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Ultimately, this would assist the VA in properly staffing their veterans with various health care needs.
The most recent law to have been passed for women veterans is S. 796 - Protecting Moms Who Served Act of 2021. The principal purpose of this law is to codify maternity care coordination programs at the VA, which includes mental health treatment coordination when it comes to possible severe maternal morbidity like a mental health condition or substance use disorder.