WASHINGTON -- A boost in medical providers and resources, greater awareness of mental illness within the military and improving the treatment of exiting service members could help combat a disturbing trend of increased suicides among veterans, lawmakers said Wednesday.
A detailed government report released earlier this month showed suicide risk is 22 percent higher among veterans compared to civilians. For female veterans, that risk was 2.5 times higher, while for male veterans the rate was 19 percent higher, according to a report released Sept. 15 by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
These findings, and others, show Congress and the VA must step up with new efforts to address the national epidemic, lawmakers and government officials said during a Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing held in the wake of the agency report.
"More needs to be done," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "And more steps need to be taken to address suicide trends among veterans. ...What I am hearing again and again and again is the rates are increasing among vets who lack access."
The report, which broke down veteran suicide statistics by state, age and gender, presented the VA's most detailed breakdown yet on the national epidemic facing former service members.
The report found suicide among veterans is even higher in Western states and rural areas, including the states of Montana, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico.
"We need to figure this out," Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said during Wednesday's hearing.
The report also showed, on average, 20 veterans commit suicide a day. More so, the vast majority of them, 14, were not enrolled in critical medical care.
"We cannot help those we do not see," VA Secretary David Shulkin told the committee.
Shulkin and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., agreed the VA must do a better job of outreach to vulnerable veterans. Shulkin said there's a gap between the VA and the Department of Defense when it comes to addressing treatment for exiting service members.
Craig Bryan, executive director for the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, said about 70 percent of veterans who have attempted suicide were already diagnosed with a mental illness.
Tester said more funding is needed to address the concerns.
"We need to do a better job of outreach," he said. "It's going to cost money to get health professionals on the ground in urban and rural areas."
The VA is also facing challenges filling a long list of openings, from high-ranking officials to mental health professionals.
Shulkin said the agency needs 1,000 such professionals "now."
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told Shulkin that he's concerned the agency hasn't been filling its mental health professional openings fast enough.
"That is unacceptable," Shulkin said. "We will do better. That just is not the way I want the department run."
Blumenthal also expressed concern that suicides can be a worsening issue for those veterans who have been dishonorably discharged, especially among veterans suffering from mental illness.
Veterans who have been dishonorably discharged can "feel stigmatized," he said. "It is a vicious cycle. A lethal cycle that can lead to suicide."
Lawmakers suggested more can be done to address mental illness among service members exiting the military.
"For the military, the easy thing is to toss someone out who has behavioral problems," Tester said.
The VA report examined the veteran suicide trends in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico from 1979 to 2014. The report also found the suicide rate among middle-aged and older veterans remains high. For example, 65 percent of veteran suicides in 2014 involved people age 50 and older.
Officials have said they hope the report will be used to develop and evaluate suicide prevention programs across the United States and gain insight into high-risk populations.
Shulkin has said the report's findings were "deeply concerning," and has made suicide prevention his top clinical priority. He has said he is committed to reducing the suicides through support and education.
"This is a national public health issue that requires a concerted, national approach," Shulkin said in the Sept. 15 release of the report.
During his testimony, he also highlighted a hotline for veterans in crisis. Veterans needing such help can call 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.