HARRISBURG — The state Legislature set aside $750,000 to help veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the 2017-18 budget.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2018-19 budget proposal would eliminate the program even before it’s rolled out.

Wolf’s budget proposes an 8 percent increase in total spending for the state Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, but it zeroes out the money allocated on the new behavioral health support for veterans.

Joseph Butera, a spokesman for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said the department has not yet completed an outline for how the money allocated for the current budget year would be used.

Butera also said that the money for PTSD services had been included in the budget by the Legislature and while the governor’s spending plan doesn’t call for another year of funding for it, the administration hasn’t ruled it out either.

“We look forward to working with the Legislature on this program in the future,” he said.

Butera said the administration can’t say how many people stand to benefit from the spending because the department hasn’t even figured out how exactly it proposes to spend the money.

“The DMVA is working on guidelines to award the current funding,” he said.

Wolf's cuts were flagged by Republican lawmakers who questioned why in a budget that would increase spending by $1 billion, an allocation for PTSD treatment for veterans would be put on the chopping block.

Both Republican state Sen. Michele Brooks, whose 50th District seat includes Crawford County, and state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, a Cambria County Republican, identified the proposed cut as being an area of concern.

Langerholc serves on the Senate appropriations committee and said that when the Department of Military Affairs appears before that committee, “I’m going to have questions” about the proposed cut in PTSD services.

Nate Silcox, executive director of the Senate veterans and emergency preparedness committee, said the governor’s move to cut the funding might be just part of the normal “give and take” in the budget process.

He couldn’t say for certain, but said there is a good chance lawmakers will seek to add the money back into the budget.

The issue is of growing importance because of the number of post 9-11 veterans who are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, said Nancy Isserman, director of Operation Home and Healing, which provides counseling and other services to veterans to their family. That effort is part of the Council for Relationships, a Philadelphia-based organization that offers counseling services, along with research and training for counselors.

She pointed to research by the Pew Research Center that found that roughly half the post 9-11 vets who’ve seen combat say they’ve dealt with PTSD.

There are about 94,000 post 9-11 veterans in Pennsylvania, according to Congressional estimates.

The prevalence of PTSD among the veteran population needs to be confronted because the disorder will often contribute to other issues, including depression and substance abuse, she said.

“Research shows you can’t treat their depression and substance abuse without treating their PTSD,” Isserman said.

Isserman said that while the state’s urban areas have more veterans, the rural parts of the state tend to have higher concentrations of veterans as a share of their total population.

And while statewide, it may seem like there may be adequate infrastructure in place, veterans who live in isolated rural communities may not have easy access to meet with counselors or therapists.

One solution that’s growing in popularity is the use of online counseling. But even that may be problematic for people who live in the country where there isn’t broadband access to make online video-conferencing an option, she said.

One possible use of the $750,000 in state funds could be to create spaces in public buildings for veterans to use computers to get online counseling, she said.

The new spending on PTSD treatment has largely flown under the radar, as officials in several statewide mental health organizations said they were unaware the money was coming down the pipe.

Sue Walther, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, said that her group hasn’t specifically lobbied for an increase in PTSD care for veterans largely because there simply isn’t enough spending on mental health treatment for anyone.

“We advocate for state dollars into community mental health with little or no success," she said. “We believe there is insufficient state funding in the community mental health line item but do not separate out or advocate for funding of one diagnosis.”

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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