Why is it harder for military families to get behavioral health care?

FILE - This file photo from June 29, 2009 shows the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital (Bradley C Bower/AP Photo, File)

FILE - This file photo from June 29, 2009 shows the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital (Bradley C Bower/AP Photo, File)

Peggy Haun’s 9-year-old son is on the autism spectrum and has an anxiety disorder. As a military family, they have to move quite often, which can be difficult for her son.

“He’s moved a couple times in his little life span, ‘cause he is now on his third base,” she said. “It does, for him, get a little frightening sometimes.”

Her son has to go to new schools, and find new doctors. In recent years, they have moved from the Gulf Coast to Baltimore to Virginia.

In Baltimore, she had trouble getting him a mental health appointment. She could wait six months, or have her son live in a hospital. She decided to wait.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Haun is the public liaison for the Military Special Needs Network, a group that supports military families with special needs. Quality of and access to specialty care can vary a lot from base to base, she said.

More than 40% of children in the United States who received or needed mental health care had problems getting it, according to the most recent children’s health survey. New research from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows it may be even more difficult for children in military families.

For them, getting a routine behavioral health appointment is harder, compared to civilians on either public or private insurance plans. In some cases, these children can wait months for an appointment.

Karen Ruedisueli, deputy director in government relations at the National Military Family Association, said that, to her organization, this is not a new problem.

“[This study] helps to back up the anecdotal stories that we’ve been bringing to the Hill and to DOD for years,” she said.

If access to behavioral care for military families lags behind civilians, that shows it’s a fixable problem, she said, adding that military families deserve at least the same quality of access because of their unique circumstances.

“It’s hard to think of another profession that has the combination of threats to personal safety, prolonged absences from immediate family, frequent relocations, and a real lack of control over major aspects of your life, such as where you live and when you move,” she said.

Ruedisueli said the biggest problem is a lack of behavioral health providers in the military health care network, which is called TRICARE. But she also noted that some military families are very happy with the care they get through TRICARE, and that she only hopes more people could be as satisfied.

There is also a national shortage of child psychiatrists, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported in 2018.

TRICARE’s chief clinical officer, Navy Capt. Edward Simmer, said the network caps wait times for routine appointments at 28 days, and that it has improved services in recent years, such as by eliminating annual limits on inpatient mental health treatment.

He said the problems cited in the study are problems that TRICARE is already aware of, and that it will work with the study’s authors on solutions.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal