The COVID-19 pandemic dominated the healthcare-related headlines this past year, and rightfully so. While the world focused its attention on the pandemic, other health crises continued in the shadows. So as we begin to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, it’s time to shine a light on the health crises that have been simmering just beneath the surface. Chief among these is the alarmingly high rate of suicide among U.S. veterans.
Tragically, the rate of veteran suicide is only increasing, not decreasing in our country. The most recent reports from the VA estimate approximately 18 veterans take their own life every day, though this number is likely higher when taking into account the accuracy of reporting from states on total death data.
Our veterans gave everything for this great country – often serving in far-off corners of the world and returning with scars, not all of which are visible. It is our responsibility – our duty – as Members of Congress to prioritize the care of the brave men and women who risked their lives to protect their fellow Americans. This is especially true for those veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental illnesses that often lead to suicide. Why shouldn’t we go the distance to make any treatment available that will help address this epidemic among our veterans?
Serving on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I’ve heard from veterans and veterans service organizations — such as Patriot Angels, Military Veterans Advocacy Inc., Fleet Reserve Association, and others — who point to Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) as a treatment that has produced positive results for individuals suffering from severe head and brain injuries. Through HBOT, patients breathe pure oxygen in a pressurized environment – giving their lungs access to more oxygen than they would normally get. The goal is to fill the blood with enough oxygen to repair tissues and restore normal body function.
Many veterans say HBOT helps treat their traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and PTSD – ailments that can lead to suicide. But perhaps most importantly, HBOT is a holistic treatment. Instead of loading up on prescribed medications, this treatment involves no drugs, no endless trips to the pharmacy, and no medicine schedules to keep up with.
HBOT is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment option for more than a dozen different conditions, including severe burns, infections and decompression sickness. In fact, there are many former professional athletes, including football players, who have found success with this treatment for different injuries, including severe head injuries. But the FDA does not recognize HBOT as an approved treatment option for TBI and PTSD, meaning veterans can’t receive this care at VA facilities and must pay for it out of their own pockets. It’s time that changed.
I introduced the Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapies Access Act to permit HBOT as a treatment option for those veterans who have tried other evidence-based treatment options for TBI and PTSD but have not seen substantial improvements. There is no reason we shouldn’t be granting access to every available treatment for our veterans when they’ve already exhausted other options.
This bill follows the Right to Try law, passed in 2018, that allows individuals suffering from prolonged illnesses to receive treatment options not yet approved by the FDA. Congress rightly recognized that patients desperate for a treatment that works for them shouldn’t be denied the chance to find a solution that would work and ultimately save their life. We should apply that same common-sense solution to our veterans.
Taking care of our veterans is personal to me. My father served in World War II and died on active duty after the war. There are 400,000 veterans who call Alabama home. Since Sept. 11, 2001 alone, nearly 2.8 million Americans have served in the Armed Forces. Each one of them deserves the assurance that their elected official is fighting for better access to care. The HBOT Access Act helps us explore every option available to Congress to help those who defended our country.
If veterans are saying they have improved after using HBOT, and if veterans services organizations have seen similar success, I say we listen to them. We should not leave quality options on the table while the veteran suicide crisis worsens.
Our veterans risked everything to keep us safe when they wore the uniform. We must show that same commitment and effort to help them when they take the uniform off.
Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the United States Senate, where he serves on the Veterans’ Affairs; Armed Services; Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees.