MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — With veteran suicides remaining a stubbornly high, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday that the entire federal government was focused on finding a solution to the problem.
Speaking after touring New Hampshire's only VA medical center in Manchester, Wilkie said the effort would require the help of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies. He also said efforts would be made to reach out to state and local governments in a bid to find veterans at risk, many of whom are not on the VA's radar.
Wilkie also said that veteran suicides couldn't be seen in isolation. He said the issue must be tackled by working on ways to combat homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness among veterans. That means changing the way the VA prescribes opioids, he said, and boosting the amount of transitional housing for homeless veterans at the state and local level.
"The sad thing that we confront every day is that of the 20 veteran suicides that occur across the country 14 of those veterans are outside of our department," Wilkie said. "What I've envisioned is the opening of the aperture to the states and localities to get them resources to find those veterans. One of the tragedies is that many of those veterans who take their lives come from my father's era - Vietnam. So we have Americans whose problems in many cases began building when Lyndon Johnson was president. We have to tackle this issue in a way that we haven't tackled it before."
Last month, President Donald Trump signed an order directing his agencies to develop a plan within 12 months to address veteran suicides. The new task force will look to create a grant system similar to the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program, which provides funding to state and local programs. The effort, which is being dubbed the PREVENTS Initiative, will also aim to better coordinate research on suicide prevention across agencies.
The order follows a report by the Government Accountability Office last December that found the VA had left millions of dollars unspent that were available for suicide prevention efforts. The report said the VA had spent just $57,000 out of $6.2 million available for paid media, such as social-media postings. The VA has blamed the missteps on leadership turmoil at the VA that has since stabilized now that Wilkie is VA secretary.
Wilkie also responded to concerns that a law passed last year which allows veterans to seek more care in the private sector would serve to undercut VA services. He insisted the expansion of the private-sector Veterans Choice program simply offered veterans more choice and that his agencies commitment to veteran health care could be with its current $220 billion budget proposal— the second largest in the federal government.
"It is not libertarian VA. It is not giving a veteran a card that says veteran and you go out into the private sector," he said. "It says if we can't provide a particular service, then we give the veteran the option of getting that service in the private sector. It keeps VA at the center of that veteran health."