Senator Chuck Grassley.

Senator Chuck Grassley.

Last week’s rampage that saw a mentally-ill Virginia man fatally shoot two former co-workers on live TV is raising new calls for increased funding to identify and treat such people before they become killers. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says we can spend more money on mental health care but it doesn’t do any good if there aren’t professionals in place to deliver the help.

“We have a dearth of psychologists and psychiatrists,” Grassley says. “I think the reason we have that is because over the last three or for decades, we’ve tilted Medicare reimbursement to put more people into surgery and a lot of other specialties and people that normally would have gone into psychiatry aren’t going into it now.”

There are ways to fill the gaps, he says, and Iowa is seeing some success in making the most of emerging technology. “In Iowa, when you have a shortage of psychiatrists, we have found that telemedicine fills in some of the vacuum,” Grassley says. “A lot of people feel more comfortable talking to a psychiatrist telemedicine-wise, over TV, feeling less intimidated than when they’re right there in the room there with them.”

The Virginia shooter bought the gun used in the killings legally. There’s a federal database that lists people who are forbidden from buying firearms. Grassley says it’s clear there are many more people who should be on the list who aren’t, while others don’t deserve to be listed.

“In the Veterans Administration, somebody comes in with an issue like, maybe he needs somebody to manage his finances,” Grassley says. “Well, that’s considered by the VA a mental illness and his name ends up in the database, so he can’t buy a gun legally and his constitutional rights are violated.”

People are less likely to talk openly about mental illness in America, which Grassley says is also a big part of the problem. “It’s a sad situation,” he says.