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Money May Not Heal Mentally Ill Vets

Medical experts, veterans and family members are testifying Wednesday in Washington about combat-related brain injuries. The House has approved a record amount of money to help veterans with a variety

Money May Not Heal Mentally Ill Vets

Medical experts, veterans and family members are testifying Wednesday in Washington about combat-related brain injuries. The House has approved a record amount of money to help veterans with a variety of mental health problems. San Diego facilities are in line for millions of dollars. But as Jodi Breisler reports from Capitol Hill, the money does not mean service members will get the best treatment.

San Diego Democrat Bob Filner is the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. He pushed through a $7 billion increase for VA funding for next year. Much of that goes to mental health care. Filner says in the current war, over 250,000 soldiers have put in health claims – many for brain injuries.

Filner: The average soldier there, because of the blasts, gets about seven concussions, if not a direct blast that affects his brain. And, of course the kind of combat and the nature of the war leads to great psychological stress in the future.

He says that's why Congress needs to fully fund VA mental health services like the Center of Excellence for Mental Health in San Diego. San Diego is home to over a quarter million active duty members and their families. Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray also supported funding the San Diego Center.

Bilbray: We're the largest military complex in the world, in our facilities, and that is reflected by our retirement population, too.

But Orange County Republican John Campbell says the money won't help. He was the only Congress Member against the funding. He says there are too many internal problems in the VA system.

Campbell: It is not a well-managed organization. And if something isn't well-managed, the last thing you do is give them more money. You make them get their management act together first because if you give a mismanaged organization more money they will simply mismanage it.

Military officials disagree with the claims of mismanagement. The surgeon general of the Navy, Vice Admiral Donald Arthur, heads a Defense Task Force on Mental Health. He came to Capitol Hill to testify that military culture, not mismanagement, harms troops' mental health.

Arthur: We don't fault people who break legs. We don't fault people who get cancer. We don't fault people with sore throats. But we tend to blame people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Arthur and his task force are trying to ensure service members and leadership don't see mental illness like PTSD as a weakness.

The Disabled American Veterans organization also advocates for change. Spokesman Adrian Atizado says the VA is the best place to invest in military mental health treatment.

Atizado: There's no other comparable health system that provides the kind of specialized services VA has, whether it's for brain injury, polytraumatic injury or mental health conditions.

Polytraumatic means many severe injuries. Atizado says increasing the Congressional budget is not enough. He says the VA has not actually received the money on time for over 10 years.

Atizado: If you try and imagine any business out there who does not get the revenues it needs in a timely manner, it creates havoc. If you're talking a big program like VA that has 150 some odd hospitals and hundreds of community-based outpatient clinics, the ripple effects are quite staggering.

Delays in congressional funding force veterans to wait longer to see a doctor. Atizado says Congress also has to make sure the VA is spending the money on mental health priorities. Filner says that's what he intends to do.

Filner: The money is the first step. Oversight is another step. Opening up the VA and the Department of the Defense to other ways of dealing with things than the way they have traditionally dealt with things is important.

Filner acknowledges there are some problems with both the VA and the Department of Defense.

Filner: They tend to be a very insular bureaucracies, and they say no to the kind of help that is offered by various communities around the country. I'm going to try to put several hundred million dollars aside for grants to community groups to help with, for example, rehabilitation of PTSD.

The money for San Diego isn't a sure thing. It still has to pass the Senate in the coming weeks.

From Washington, I'm Jodi Breisler for KPBS Radio.