by Sarah Roderick-Fitch
A group of Virginia bipartisan congressional leaders are leading the charge with legislation to improve access to mental health services and reduce suicides among Navy sailors.
Reps. Jennifer Kiggans, Rob Wittman, Bobby Scott and Jennifer McClennan are leading efforts to increase access to mental health resources while requiring mental health screenings for sailors on limited duty, entitled the Sailor Standard Care Act.
The Naval communities around Norfolk were rocked late last year by the tragic deaths of four sailors assigned to the same unit within a 28-day period – all ruled suicides.
Suicides have outpaced combat-related deaths by more than four times the amount for active duty service members in the last 20 years. Kiggans, a Navy veteran and Republican representing Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, expressed outrage at the disturbing trend.
“As a former Navy helicopter pilot and health care provider, it infuriates me that the number of sailors who die by suicide continues to rise,” Kiggans said. “Our community here in Hampton Roads has been particularly devastated by these tragedies. It’s clear for anyone to see – we have to better serve those serving our great country.”
If passed, the Sailor Standard Care Act would not only require mental health screening for sailors on limited duty but also help service members and their families access mental health care through Tricare. In addition, it would implement a “quality-of-life tracker” and improve the Navy’s medical separation process.
Specifically, the legislation would mandate billets for mental health professionals, including medical officers, chaplains and civilian mental health specialists, to be assigned to units with over 15 sailors on limited duty. In addition, mental health screenings would be conducted every 60 days while sailors remain on limited duty.
The legislation would also analyze the reimbursement rates for mental health specialists under Tricare and the number of mental health professionals under Tricare, and address the need to provide prompt access. It would also track “quality-of-life issues,” including issues involving military spouse employment, childcare, health care, housing and education opportunities.
Kiggans introduced the legislation in hopes it would provide sailors with the assistance needed to combat the troubling trend.
Scott, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, expressed the need for expedited care for mental health in assisting sailors address their needs.
“The Sailor Standard of Care Act addresses these concerns by directing the Navy to expedite care, increase mental health screenings, and establish a framework to improve the mental health of sailors,” said Scott. “There has been a disturbing rise in the number of sailors dying by suicide in recent years; and the Navy must ensure that our sailors are able to access the mental health services that they deserve.”
Wittman, a Republican representing Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, underscored the need for sailors to access mental health resources as they face unique experiences and challenges as part of their service.
“Ensuring our sailors have access to the mental health resources they need is of the utmost importance,” said Wittman. “Our men and women in uniform face incredible experiences and challenges during their time of service, and we have a duty to ensure they are receiving the proper treatment and care they need to stay safe and healthy.”
Kiggans expressed her gratitude to her colleagues on both sides of the aisle and renewed her commitment to ensuring sailors are provided the resources necessary to combat the troubling trend of suicide and mental health issues.
“I’m proud to lead the bipartisan effort to provide our service members with the mental healthcare they need and reverse this troubling rise in suicides,” Kiggans said. “I will not rest until the Navy is equipped to provide the resources and quality of life each and every sailor deserves.”
The legislation is also being sponsored and co-sponsored by Reps. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, Congressman Dave Joyce, R-Ohio and Brian Fitzpatrick R-Penn.
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Sarah Roderick-Fitch is The Center Square’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Editor. She has previously worked as an editor, and has been a contributing writer for several publications. In addition to writing and editing, Sarah spent nearly a decade working for non-profit, public policy organizations in the Washington, DC area.