The Department of Veterans Affairs has opened a new Veterans Crisis Line Center in Topeka, Kansas, to help handle the crush of calls from veterans seeking help and guidance when they have thoughts of suicide.
The new facility at the Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center in Topeka, which officially opened last Friday, will be the third in the system aimed at curbing the suicide rate among veterans, estimated at 20 per day.
Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) centers have also been opened in Atlanta and Canandaigua, New York. In addition, the Canandaigua center is looking to hire 30 to 50 more people to answer calls.
"Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide -- and those who know a veteran in crisis -- can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year," the VA said. "Call 800-273-8255 and press 1; chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat; or text to 838255."
Former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who was ousted by President Donald Trump in March, had made suicide prevention among veterans his top priority.
Shulkin last September announced his intention to open the VCL in Topeka. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said at the time, "Secretary Shulkin has made suicide prevention a top priority, and expanding the VCL to additional locations and increasing crisis responders is critical to providing veterans with the support they need, when they need it."
Acting VA Secretary Peter O'Rourke said the new center in Topeka was opened to meet increased demand for the service.
"Our focus is, as it always has been, to provide 24/7 world-class suicide prevention and crisis intervention services," he said in a statement. "VA is improving its service with this newest call center for veterans, service members and their families."
In August 2016, a VA report titled "Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans" showed that in 2014 an average of 20 veterans died by suicide every day, and about six of the 20 had been receiving VA services at the time.
The VA report said that in 2014 about 65 percent of all veteran suicides were age 50 and older, and that risk for suicide in 2014 was 21 percent higher among veterans when compared with U.S. civilian adults. Other studies have suggested that the opioid crisis may be a contributing factor in veteran suicides.
Last year, the office of VA Inspector General Michael Missal reported that veterans who use the Veterans Choice Program to seek private care treatment were at "significant risk" for abusing opioids.
VA guidelines aimed at decreasing opioid prescriptions did not cover private-sector doctors who signed up with the VA to treat veterans, the IG's report said.
"Veterans receiving opioid prescriptions from VA-referred clinical settings may be at greater risk for overdose and other harm because medication information is not being consistently shared," it said.
"That has to change. Health-care providers serving veterans should be following consistent guidelines for prescribing opioids and sharing information that ensures quality care for high-risk veterans," the report continued.
According to the VA, the Veterans Crisis Line centers have responded to more than 3.5 million calls since the first was set up in 2007.
Responders have initiated the dispatch of emergency services to callers in crisis nearly 93,000 times and have forwarded more than 582,000 referrals to local VA Suicide Prevention Coordinators (SPCs) to ensure continuity of care with local VA providers, the VA said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.