Lawmakers to Grill VA for Answers on Suicide 'Epidemic'

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., questions witnesses during a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on "Scheduling Manipulation and Veteran Deaths in Phoenix: Examination of the OIG's Final Report" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 17, 2014.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., questions witnesses during a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on "Scheduling Manipulation and Veteran Deaths in Phoenix: Examination of the OIG's Final Report" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Spurred by three recent suicides over five days at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, the House Veterans Affairs Committee is beginning a series of hearings Monday to press the VA for answers on what key leaders have called an "epidemic" of veteran suicides.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, and ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, said in a joint statement that enacting measures to bring down the estimated rate of 20 veteran suicides per day would be their top priority in this Congress.

They scheduled a rare evening hearing Monday on "Tragic Trends" in veteran suicides to take testimony and statements from Dr. Keita Franklin, the VA's national director of suicide prevention; Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration; mental health professionals; and veterans service organizations.

"This is a national crisis that we all need to address," Takano said in a statement. "Every new instance of veteran suicide showcases a barrier to access but, with three incidents on VA property in just five days, and six this year alone, it's critical we do more to stop this epidemic."

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A flurry of bills aimed at improving access, promoting outreach and hiring more mental health professionals has already been introduced since three veteran suicides between April 5 and April 9 at medical centers in Georgia and a clinic in Austin, Texas.

In testimony earlier this month to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Stone said there have been about 260 suicide attempts at VA facilities in recent years, and VA staff intervened in 240 of them.

In response to the crisis, Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-New York, joined by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, introduced a bill aimed at reducing vacancy rates among VA suicide prevention coordinators, who often are the first to identify potentially at-risk veterans.

Rep. Max Rose, D-New York, has introduced a bill requiring the VA to notify Congress within seven days of any suicide or attempted suicide at a VA facility. The bill would also require the VA to notify Congress within 60 days of suicides or attempted suicides about whether there were contacts with the VA system and the outcomes of those contacts.

According to the VA, about three of the 20 daily veteran suicides are among members of the National Guard and Reserve who were never federally activated and were, therefore, ineligible for VA mental health services.

Last month, Roe and Rep. Mike Levin, D-California, introduced the Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act to give members of the National Guard, Reserve and Coast Guard access to care at the VA.

"Currently, National Guard, Coast Guard, and Reserve service members are exempt from receiving readjustment counseling services at VA Medical Centers, but they often face emotionally challenging deployments to natural disasters or civil disorders that require counseling," Levin said in a statement.

On the Senate side, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, have introduced the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, named for a former Navy SEAL who took his own life in Montana last year.

The proposed legislation would seek to add mental health professionals at the VA by giving the department direct hiring authority, offering scholarships to mental health professionals to work at Vet Centers, and placing at least one suicide prevention coordinator in every VA hospital.

The bill would also seek to improve access to VA mental health care in rural areas by increasing the number of locations at which veterans can access VA telehealth services and offering grants to non-VA organizations that provide mental health services or alternative treatment to veterans.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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