Alabama Bill Aims to Create State Health System for Veterans and Their Families

by Braxton Taylor

Two new bills in the Alabama Senate and House of Representatives aim to create a healthcare system in the state for U.S. Military veterans and their families.

“This bill would put veterans’ care in the hands of veterans,” John Kilpatrick, founder and CEO of Vets Recover, a nonprofit in Mobile that provides mental health care primarily for veterans, first responders and their families. Kilpatrick is president of the Alabama Council of Chapters of the Military Officers Association of America.

The bills, introduced last month and awaiting review in their respective committees of origin, would task the state Department of Veterans Affairs with creating and implementing a healthcare system that would provide primary care, behavioral health care and social services to veterans and their immediate family.

State Sen. Andrew Jones (R- Centre), chair of the senate Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Safety Committee who filed the senate version of the bill, says he hopes to spotlight the need for veterans’ mental health in the state with this bill.

“Mental health needs are already amplified because of the situations they’ve served in,” Jones said. “We want to shine a light on the needs of veterans, because they can get lost in mental health and addiction conversations.”

Kilpatrick says that the system is needed to “fill in the gap” between the federal U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and state-authorized mental health authorities. Kilpatrick has been involved in the creation of these bills from the beginning, he said.

“There’s a brotherhood there”

What exactly the healthcare system will look like isn’t clear. The bill states that, if it becomes law, the state Department of Veterans Affairs will create a comprehensive plan for the health system. Jones says he believes the state could partner with private facilities for some of the system’s infrastructure.

The ADVA was not involved in the creation of the bills, Brandon Miller, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email, and as a state agency, the ADVA did not lobby for the creation of a program.

“Although ADVA was not involved in drafting SB135 and HB197, we deeply appreciate the efforts of the primary sponsors, Rep. Chip Brown and Sen. Andrew Jones, to assist those veterans,” Miller said in an emailed statement. “If such a bill were to pass—whether in the current or amended form—it would create another avenue for ADVA to continue serving Alabama veterans along with our federal VA and private sector partners, which we consider to be an honor and privilege.”

Kilpatrick envisions five inpatient clinics and 25 outpatient clinics throughout the state. The outpatient clinics would be co-located with veterans service offices run by the state. The system would provide “integrated” healthcare services, including mental health care services, primary care, and peer support, among other services.

The clinics would also be staffed by veterans or people familiar with the struggles that veterans face, Kilpatrick says. He hopes that this will ease the stigma that veterans often feel when trying to access treatment.

“Veterans want to talk to veterans, they want to talk to providers who know what it’s like to serve,” Kilpatrick says. “Calling a marine a ‘soldier’ is offensive to them. And if you don’t know what to call me, how do you know where I’ve been?”

Scott Sloss understands the importance of having veterans involved in veteran healthcare. Sloss, who owns Truth & Grace Law Firm in Tuscaloosa, is a U.S. Army veteran and works with veterans often, though he’s not involved with these bills.

While he believes the stigma around mental health issues is eroding, he says that veterans are more likely to open up to another servicemember who can understand their experience. Non-servicemembers can build the same trust, he argues, but it takes time.

“When a program is run by veterans, there’s an instant connection, because there’s a brotherhood there,” he says. “It takes a lot longer to build that trust up with other people.”

Funding

Overall, Kilpatrick estimates that the state will need to take on $60-70 million in capital costs to start the system. Once it’s operational, he estimates it will cost $120 million per year to run the system. Those estimates are based on the costs needed to run Vets Recover, which he hopes would serve as a model for the rest of the system.

Kilpatrick says that they’re hoping to pull funding from three sources: the $278 million in settlement funds from lawsuits related to the opioid epidemic, federal grant funds that would typically go to the Alabama Department of Mental Health and reimbursement from the V.A. for providing services to eligible veterans.

Jones says that he’s not looking to pull funding from any other department in the state. Rather, he’s hoping that the bills will create the infrastructure needed so the state can take advantage if federal funds become available.

“We need to come at it from a collaborative perspective,” Jones said. “I’m not here to fight a turf war, I’m here to try to do what’s best for the state of Alabama.”

As for the next steps for the bill, Jones says he’s not sure when they will be considered by the committee. The senate committee has not set a meeting date yet, he says, due to other priorities. But right now, he says he’s focused on educating other members of the legislature.

In addition to the senate bill, a similar bill was filed in the house by State Rep. Chip Brown (R-Hollinger’s Island). That bill will be reviewed by the House Military and Veterans Affairs committee. Both the house and senate bills have multiple sponsors.

Understanding the need

There are about 400,000 veterans in Alabama, and combined with their families, constitute 23% of the state population, according to the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans are about 9% of the state population but account for about 20% of the state’s suicides.

Nationally, the V.A. found in one study that though the veteran population decreased by 10.1% from 2010-2016, veteran overdose deaths increased by 28.9% and veteran opioid overdose deaths increased by 56%.

The V.A. system will become even more overwhelmed starting this month, Kilpatrick says, when all veterans who were exposed to toxins or hazardous materials will be able to enroll directly in V.A. health care without first applying for V.A. benefits, following passage of the PACT Act in 2022.

Kilpatrick says he’s not criticizing the quality of care veterans receive through the V.A. or other mental health clinics, but V.A. clinics and hospitals in the state are overwhelmed. Civilian mental health clinics lack the “cultural competency” needed to cater to veterans and their families, he says. This system would increase access to care, which he says is desperately needed for veterans.

“It’s not a 100% solution, this aims to fill in the gap from the V.A. and the [ Alabama] Department of Mental Health,” Kilpatrick says. “This is about access to care.”

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