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CSSP OpEd Running in News and Observer

September 06, 2012


 

Matt Leatherman's OpEd in support of CSSP is running in the News and Observer.

http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/09/06/2319094/a-key-to-veterans-care-deserves.html

Twenty-four Congress members wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in late July with a pointed message.  At stake is what to do with a $708 million surplus in the 2012 military health system budget.  These Representatives, including Walter Jones (R-NC), noted sobering suicide rates among service-members and that “our health care providers struggle to find effective treatments” to Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  “We believe the excess $708 million should first be used to address issues like [these],” they concluded.

These are character-defining issues for North Carolina and the country.  Fort Bragg soldiers and Camp LeJeune Marines that will soon return to civilian life are a powerful reminder of this obligation, and our more than 20,000 Reserve and National Guard veterans are even more visible to communities across the state. 

Merely responding to this challenge is not adequate – North Carolina also will be shaped by how we lead.  Chapel Hill’s exercise and sports science department is pioneering the TBI research field; the NC Military Foundation is helping to coordinate public and private sector contributions; and the UNC General Administration’s Citizen Soldier Support Program is enabling mental health professionals nationwide to address veterans’ unique needs.

Yet at the end of this month, the Citizen Soldier Support Program (CSSP) will exhaust its funds and discontinue its work: tracking the unmet needs of service-members and their families and training local mental health professionals to care for them.  Its resources come from Washington, and the Pentagon has chosen not to provide $18 million to extend the program by another five years.

No reason has been given for this choice, leaving the decision factors unknown.  Several possibilities would be cause for concern, though.

The Defense Department has its own mental health programs, and it may feel that CSSP overlaps with them.  Streamlining duplication is always part of good government, especially in times of tight budgets, but this response seems insufficient.  Rep. Jones and his colleagues critiqued the Pentagon for having too little capacity.  Meanwhile, CSSP focuses on extending services – including those provided by the Pentagon – to communities where capacity is lowest, particularly those home to Reservists and Guardsmen but far from military facilities.  That appears to complement Pentagon efforts, not compete with them.

Caring for veterans and their families also is a bureaucratically complicated mission.  Responsibility for this work is split among various offices in the Departments of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs, and each has an incentive to shovel costs onto the others.  An office that finances CSSP will be picking up the full tab for a shared task, a difficult decision when budgets are falling.

Of course, this shouldn’t matter outside the Washington beltway.  If the mission is important – and no one has suggested otherwise – then Americans have every right to hold policymakers across the government responsible for figuring out how to achieve it.

CSSP is part of that answer in the minds of several key policymakers.  Admiral Michael Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote in 2011 that “the CSSP can play an even more prominent role in helping to achieve our goals… with additional and continued support from the [Defense] Department.”  NC Representatives Price (D), Jones (R), Kissell (D), and McIntyre (D) concurred in a bipartisan letter, and Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) has sent two of her own.

Still the Pentagon has not made this choice.  Less than a month remains for Congress and President Obama to reconsider. 

One of two things needs to happen.  The White House could explain immediately and in detail how this mission can be met without CSSP, including in communities distant from a military facility, or why CSSP is unable to meet it.  Failing that challenging standard, the White House and Congress should override the Pentagon and find the money themselves. 

Little stands in their way. Obama identified a need for more military mental health care capacity and closer collaboration with community providers – benefits that CSSP catalyzes today – in an executive order signed just last Friday. Legislators from across the aisle and the country have publicly committed to the same principles. Meanwhile, budgets are strained, but Congress has already appropriated the $708 million unneeded elsewhere in the military health system. Three percent – $18 million – could shift to CSSP without violating spending caps or adding to the debt.

North Carolina’s congressional delegation is the proper face of this effort.  The size of our military population means that NC has a special need for these services, and helping to expand their availability across the country is part of the leadership role that comes with being the most military-friendly state.  Importantly, a fiscally responsible way to achieve this goal is readily available.  With just days left, it’s time right now for Congress to demand answers from the White House or to work with it so that the Citizen Soldier Support Program can continue its mission.

Matthew Leatherman, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and frequent commentator on state political-military relations, is an analyst with the Stim