Home from Iraq, some National Guard members will face mental health hurdlesby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Statistics indicate many members of the Minnesota National Guard, who are returning from more than one year in Iraq could need mental health services. A new Defense Department report says soldiers and their families lack access to mental health care. But providers in Minnesota, from Veterans Affairs facilities to community-based clinics, say they're ready to help the returning members of the guard.
St. Paul, Minn. — Research suggests that as many as 17 percent of troops returning from tours of duty in Iraq suffer from major depression, generalized anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder. If that number holds true for the 2,600 Minnesota Guard troops of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, hundreds of them could face significant mental health issues.
The director of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis, Steven Kleinglass, says VA facilities around the state are ready and waiting to take care of the troops' physical and mental health needs.
"I don't believe we're going to be overwhelmed. We want to take care of all those people that want services here," Kleinglass says. "We believe we have the capacity. We welcome them to come here."
Kleinglass says he hopes Guard troops who need help will first visit a VA facility. But he understands that they may choose to get treatment at independent clinics, such as Human Services Incorporated, a private Washington County area community-based mental health provider.
Mark Kuppe, the CEO of HSI, says the non-profit is well aware of the brigade's homecoming and fully expects it will end up treating some of the returning soldiers.
"It's a little difficult to try to anticipate exactly what will happen," says Kuppe in his office in Oakdale. "We've tried to figure that in this particular area we may have 200 to 250 vets returning. So what we have done is take a look at what services that we needed to be aware of and thinking about."
Kuppe says he expects the needs will come in the areas of chemical dependency and mental health.
To position itself to serve the veterans, Kuppe says HSI re-established provider status with military's Tricare insurance program. He says HSI severed ties with military insurance years ago because of low reimbursement rates and cumbersome compliance requirements. Kuppe says he and his colleagues decided re-upping with Tricare was the right thing to do.
"We didn't want to create a barrier for any of the vets coming back so we decided we're going to go ahead and do this," Kuppe said.
HSI wasn't alone in deciding to become a Tricare provider. Tricare says two years ago it had fewer than 100 behavioral health professionals in its Minnesota network. Now it has more than 650.
Col. Kevin Gerdes has been helping coordinate the Minnesota National Guard's reintegration program.
"Tricare was an issue, (it) certainly continues to be an issue for us. But we've had a pretty good response from medical providers in Minnesota who have stepped up to join the Tricare network and be a provider for it so I think so of those efforts are going to pay off for us," Gerdes says.
A Department of Defense mental health task force recently concluded that returning troops lack accessibility to mental health professionals. Gerdes says, even with the success in getting so many more providers to join Tricare, the effort to further expand the network continues.
"Are there going to be some pockets of Minnesota, especially in rural Minnesota that were not covered very well? Yeah, I think there are. But compared to where we were a year ago, there's been a tremendous response," Gerdes says.
As much as returning soldiers may need mental health services, providers say their family members often need help, too.
Chris Anderson sees the need for family-based care. Anderson runs Innovative Psychological Consultants, a Maple Grove-based practice comprised of four providers two of whom accept the Tricare military insurance.
"For the family members, they've now adapted to a lifestyle of... being a single parent -- I'm raising my kids, I'm running this household -- and now so and so is back and how do (we) renegotiate? In some ways it's kind of like courtship all over again," he says. Even though I know this person, I've been married to them. It's like a newlywed couple moving in together."
Guard officials say the bulk of the 1st Brigade combat team will be flying into Wisconsin within the next couple of weeks. They'll demobilie there before heading to local armories around Minnesota for reunions with friends and family.
- Morning Edition, 07/03/2007, 7:20 a.m.