Senator Pushes to Move Forward With 911-Style Veterans Suicide Hotline

In this Nov. 1, 2018, file photo, Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters after a debate with Patrick Morrisey in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
In this Nov. 1, 2018, file photo, Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters after a debate with Patrick Morrisey in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, wants to accelerate creation of a three-digit, 911-style suicide hotline to ensure that veterans have easier access to the existing Veterans Crisis Line in an emergency.

Manchin said Wednesday he will introduce legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Veterans Affairs to move forward on a three-digit number for veterans to call.

In a letter Manchin sent May 7 to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, the senator said West Virginia loses at least one person a day to suicide, and many who take their own lives are veterans.

But while the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018 called for a study on the effectiveness of a three-digit code -- with a report due to Congress by the end of August -- Manchin said he "remains concerned about the lack of urgency on the issue" and he wants to see assurances that a yet-to-be-determined number, now known as N911, will be implemented.

"The first line of defense we have to prevent suicide is the hotline we have. The number is 800-273-8255. How many of us can remember that? We are going to that three-digit," he said during a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on suicide prevention among veterans.

Under the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, FCC was directed to study the effectiveness of the current suicide prevention line, known as the Veterans or Military Crisis Line, which connects directly to the VA if the caller presses 1. It connects to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for all other callers. The commission is also studying the feasibility and cost of finding a three-digit dialing code.

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In his letter, Manchin asked for an update on the report. But he said Wednesday he will request support from other members of Congress for rapid implementation.

The suicide rate for American veterans is 1.5 times the civilian rate. An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Veterans from the Vietnam era and shortly thereafter make up the majority of these deaths.

The Veterans Crisis Line receives 1,700 calls a day and Wilkie said VA is working with Manchin "to make a three-code call-in to make the process even easier than it is now."

Wilkie added that VA has turned over its portion of information for the congressionally mandated study to the FCC. He said he hopes the results will be "turned around quickly in anticipation of" Manchin's proposed legislation.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, said he has visited a Georgia satellite office of the Veterans Crisis Line and was "astounded at how many calls come in and how rapid they come in."

"The better we do at making our services accessible, and the better we do at making sure our people educated to deliver these services, the better it will be for our veterans, the more over time it will help and we will reduce the number of suicides," Isakson said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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