New Law Extends VA Mental Health Counseling to More Guard and Reserve Members

Image used by the Army Substance Abuse Program to bring attention to Suicide Awareness Month. (US Army/Michele Wiencek)
Image used by the Army Substance Abuse Program to bring attention to Suicide Awareness Month. (US Army/Michele Wiencek)

President Donald Trump has signed into law a pair of bills to help prevent suicides among veterans.

The Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act extends Department of Veterans Affairs readjustment counseling and related mental health services to National Guard and Reserve troops who did not deploy to combat areas but instead participated in drug interdiction or fighting national disasters or emergencies. It was sponsored by Republican Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee and Neal Dunn of Florida, and Democratic Rep. Mike Levin of California.

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The VA already was authorized to provide counseling through Vet Centers to veterans and service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve who served on active military duty in any combat theater or area of hostility, experienced military sexual trauma, provided direct emergent medical care or mortuary services to casualties of war, or served as a member of an unmanned aerial vehicle crew that provided direct support to operations in a combat zone or area of hostility.

But members of the National Guard, Reserve or Coast Guard who participated in a drug interdiction or responded to a national emergency, major disaster or civil disorder were not eligible to receive Vet Center care, even though such service can have serious mental health consequences, Roe and Dunn said. The new law extends that eligibility to these individuals.

According to the VA, more than 6,100 veterans died by suicide in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. Veteran suicide rates have remained stable at 18 to 22 per day since the late 1990s, despite significant increases in resources targeted toward VA mental health care.

Out of the approximately 20 veterans who take their lives on any given day, only six sought care from the VA in the two years preceding their death, according to statistics. Of the remaining 14, analysis indicates as many as four of those suicides occur among those who served in the National Guard or Reserve but never deployed.

"I am concerned that the stress and social isolation caused by COVID-19 could raise that [suicide] number even higher, particularly for Guard members and Reservists who have been activated to deal not only with the pandemic but also with hurricanes, wildfires and more these last several months," Roe said in a statement.

Another new law, the Veterans' Care Quality Transparency Act, directs the Government Accountability Office to assess the effectiveness of VA and non-VA entities related to suicide prevention and mental health services for veterans. It was sponsored by Democratic Reps. Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Katie Porter of California.

The assessment would include a review of all suicide prevention programs, outreach and the provision and coordination of mental health services during the five years preceding the enactment of the bill. This would help ensure that the partnerships the VA is pursuing with outside entities are working properly to end suicides in military and veteran communities.

"Veterans have made incredible sacrifices for our country, and often face unique mental health challenges when they return from service -- challenges that may be compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The best way to thank a veteran is to ensure they're properly cared for when they return home," Underwood said in a statement.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to list Levin as a sponsor of the Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act.

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