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Mideast edition, Thursday, September 27, 2007

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Defense Department plans to open a Center of Excellence to improve the quality of and access to the department’s mental health services.

The move comes in response to a June report by a mental health task force that found the Defense Department was failing to meet troops’ mental health care needs.

The report included 95 recommendations for addressing the reported shortcomings, including hiring more mental health providers.

In response, the department recently gave Congress its plan for implementing all but one of the task force’s recommendations.

One major feature of the Defense Department’s plan calls for creating the Center of Excellence by May. The center would be tasked with developing standards of care, monitoring traumatic brain injuries and measuring how satisfied troops are with mental health care services.

“While focused on research, education and training, and clinical care, the Center of Excellence will also house an information clearinghouse and ombudsman that will serve an advocacy function for servicemembers and family members who have questions, concerns, or need assistance in navigating the system of care,” the plan says.

The plan also says the Defense Department is looking into whether it needs to hire more mental health care providers, but it did not get into specific numbers.

The plan calls for adding 200 professionals from the Public Health Service to military facilities to make it easier for troops to have access to mental health care.

These military mental health professionals will go to U.S. bases worldwide, Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.

Other aspects of the plan include:

Embedding mental health professionals with line units.

Putting more mental health providers into primary care clinics.

Limiting the waiting time for initial mental health visits to seven days.

Looking into new incentives to recruit and retain mental health providers.

The Defense Department’s plan to implement most of the mental health task force’s recommendations drew praise from two prominent Democratic lawmakers who requested the mental health task force study — Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that our troops are both physically and psychologically healthy and the Department’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Mental Health Task Force is a first step in fulfilling that responsibility,” Lieberman said in a statement.

Boxer called the plan “an urgently needed step forward.”

“By embracing the recommendations made by the Mental Health Task Force, the Pentagon is recognizing and accepting the importance of ensuring our Armed Forces are not just physically healthy, but also in good psychological health,” Boxer said in a statement. “Implementing these recommendations will save lives and help those suffering from mental illness.”

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