(Washington, DC) Yesterday, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) delivered her first speech, also known as her maiden speech, on the floor of the Senate. As part of the address, Senator Ernst introduced her first piece of legislation, the Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act.

TRANSCRIPT:

Mr. President, as we begin this week with the serious and necessary discussions about the budget, I rise today to talk about something that is very personal to me; something that is incredibly close to my heart—the service and sacrifice of our nation’s finest men and women—those that serve in our armed forces.  And, as the budget process moves forward, we must ensure that our national security needs are met, and that our veterans can receive the much needed care and assistance they deserve.

You see, growing up on a farm in rural southwest Iowa, my parents instilled in my sister, my brother and me the importance of hard work, service and sacrifice.

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Iowa State University, I was very fortunate to attend an agricultural exchange in Ukraine when it was still part of the former Soviet Union.

The Iowa students and I lived on a collective farm for a number of weeks.  In the evening, when the community members came together, we did not talk about agricultural practices like I anticipated. What we talked about was what it was like to be free. What it was like to be an American. Those were the things that the Ukrainians wanted to know. They wanted to know about freedom, our Republic – democracy.

Just a few short years later, they became an independent nation. They are a sovereign nation.

It was then that I better understood what it meant to have freedom and how much people elsewhere truly desire it. I wanted to do my part to ensure our country always remained free.

That realization led me to make a decision when I was 19 years old, to join the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, commonly known as ROTC.

For over two decades, I’ve had the great honor of wearing our nation’s uniform: today, I serve as a Lt. Colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard and I’ve been privileged to have led and commanded at many levels from platoon to battalion.

From 2003 to 2004 I served as a company commander in Operation Iraqi Freedom. My unit was tasked with running convoys through Kuwait and southern Iraq.

As a solider, I learned firsthand the vital role that citizen soldiers play. Citizen soldiers are folks who train for military duty so they are prepared to defend in the face of an emergency. These men and women take on this task voluntarily and can be called upon to serve at any time. 

While overseas I had the opportunity to serve alongside some of the finest Americans, our bravest men and women. I saw firsthand how dangerous threats against our nation can be. 

It is becoming increasingly important that our military: our Active Duty, National Guard and Reserve are always working together as one cohesive unit. We are strongest in numbers, when working together to build one another up and support one another. Our mission is clear and we come from all corners of the country united on the same goal: to defend our freedom.

I continue to remain focused on strengthening our national security both in my role in the Iowa National Guard and on the Armed Services Committee, where we discuss ways to support our exceptional military and develop bipartisan strategies to confront terrorism and destroy Al Qaeda, ISIS, and those radicalized by them.

Here in the Senate, we also have an incredible responsibility to not only make sure our country is protected but to also ensure we live up to the promises made to our veterans.

These men and women are trained and have selflessly sacrificed in defense of our freedoms, and our way of life.

However, we must ensure that our veterans are prepared to transition back to civilian life.

They deserve nothing less than the benefits they were promised and a quality of care we can all be proud of.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case. According to the VA, there are approximately 22 veteran suicides per day.  We hear this number from time to time – but think about it: 22 veteran suicides per day.

In November 2014 testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the VA’s chief consultant for mental health said, the average wait time for a mental health appointment at the VA is 36 days. We can – and must – do better for our veterans.

If a non-VA mental health care professional can reach a veteran one day, one week, or even two weeks earlier than 36 days, Congress nor the VA should be an obstacle to affording a veteran potentially lifesaving mental health treatment.

Veterans themselves are the only ones who know their mental health limit, and a veteran should receive the benefit of the doubt at where that limit is—not the VA.

This is an issue that impacts all eras of veterans. Since coming to Washington, I’ve heard from many veterans on this very issue. One veteran in particular from the Vietnam War era admitted that he had twice attempted suicide.

This veteran felt like he didn’t have anywhere to go. We have to do better.

Today, as my first piece of legislation in the United States Senate, I am introducing the Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act.

This legislation provides an option for our veterans to receive mental health treatment, until they can receive comprehensive mental health care at the VA.

This authorization for mental health care treatment provides a back-stop, other than the emergency room, for our veterans.  Ultimately, the ER should not be considered a back-stop for delayed mental health care at the VA, as most veterans who seek mental health treatment at emergency rooms do so when they have reached the limits of their suffering.  

There is no acceptable VA wait time for mental health care for our veterans. The limits to how much suffering a veteran can endure simply cannot be accurately measured by the VA or any medical professional. 

Specifically, this legislation puts veterans mental health care first and foremost, provides a back-stop to VA mental health care, and prioritizes incentives to hire more mental health care professionals at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

The Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act does several things:

First, it amends the Veterans’ Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 to where a veteran is instantly authorized non-VA care if the veteran provides an electronic or hard-copy statement in writing that he or she is not receiving adequate or timely mental health care at the VA.  This eliminates the 40-mile and VA wait-time triggers for mental health care under the Choice Act.

Second, it prioritizes incentives for the hiring of mental health care professionals at VA.

And third, it provides the VA 90 days to enact the program.

I hope this legislation will receive broad bipartisan support, because ensuring our veterans have access to the mental health they deserve is not a conservative or liberal concept. It’s not a Republican or Democrat idea. It’s an American value.

If we do not stand up for America’s tenacious survivors, who will? Thanks to these brave men and women, we are able to stand on this floor and fight for our beliefs and our ideals.

These veterans fought for us and defended us tirelessly. They endured more than some of us can ever imagine. The invisible wounds of war can no longer go unnoticed.  Now, it is our duty to do all we can to thank them and ensure they have access to the quality mental health care. The health care they deserve.

God bless these men and women, and let us strive to do better for them.

With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor and note the absence of a quorum.

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