Veterans to Get Free Emergency Care During Suicidal Mental Health Crises

A sign for the Military and Veterans Crisis Line.
A sign for the Military and Veterans Crisis Line reading “Dial 988 then Press 1” is seen at the entrance to the Nebraska National Guard air base in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Sept. 9, 2022. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Lisa Crawford)

Starting Tuesday, veterans experiencing an emergency suicidal crisis will be eligible for no-cost care, including inpatient treatment, at any Department of Veterans Affairs facility or non-VA hospital, regardless of whether they are enrolled with the VA.

The department announced Friday that it is expanding eligibility for care -- up to 30 days of inpatient or residential care or 90 days of outpatient treatment -- for veterans in a severe, acute mental health emergency.

The change, required by the Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care and Treatment, or COMPACT, Act of 2020, applies to nearly 9 million former U.S. service members who don't already receive VA health care and services, according to the department.

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"Veterans in suicidal crisis can now receive the free, world-class emergency health care they deserve -- no matter where they need it, when they need it, or whether they're enrolled in VA care," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a press release. "This expansion of care will save veterans' lives, and there's nothing more important than that."

According to an interim rule that is to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register, eligible veterans include those in crisis who received an other-than-honorable discharge or higher, or were sexually assaulted or harassed while serving, and meet one of four conditions having served:

  • More than 24 months on active duty
  • 100 days under a combat exclusion
  • In support of a contingency operation directly more than 100 days
  • Or as a drone operator for more than 100 days.

The benefit will pay for emergency care, transportation costs and follow-up care. Veterans who use the care will receive referrals to treatment, VA programs and benefits, if applicable, following the emergency and counseling on their eligibility for other VA services.

Under the proposed rule, veterans who go to a VA facility for an acute emergency suicidal crisis would not be required to make any copayments for the emergency or follow-on hospitalization or outpatient care.

If a veteran goes to a non-VA hospital, in-patient treatment center or outpatient program, the VA will either pay the institution directly or reimburse the veteran for care.

Despite an ongoing national dialogue that 22 veterans die by suicide a day -- a decade-old figure that stemmed from an extrapolation based on data from 21 states -- the rate of suicide among veterans fell to roughly 16.8 each day in 2020. In 2020, 6,146 veterans took their own lives, down nearly 10% from a peak in 2018 and their lowest level since 2006, according to data provided by the VA.

Still, suicide among the veteran population remains a problem, with rates much higher than the general public. A report released last year by America's Warrior Partnership, Duke University and the University of Alabama said that, based on its review of death information from eight states, veterans take their lives at a 34% higher rate than reported by the VA.

To address rising suicides across the country, the federal government established the three-digit 988 number for the Suicide & Crisis Helpline and Veterans Crisis Line, with veterans able to press 1 for specialized help. The VA has embarked on nationwide campaigns urging veterans to reach out to fellow vets, family and friends if they have a problem, and it has kicked off public service messaging to encourage safe storage of firearms, which are used in roughly 70% of all veteran suicides each year.

The VA also has proposed waiving copayments for mental health treatment for veterans at risk for suicide and reducing the cost of psychiatric medications for these veterans.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the former chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sponsored the legislation that included the expansion of access to care for suicidal veterans. On Friday, he said the benefit is a "step forward" in reducing veteran suicide.

"This new benefit removes cost from the equation when veterans are at imminent risk of self-harm and allows them to access lifesaving care when they need it most," Takano said in a press release.

The Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by dialing 988 and pressing 1. Help also is available by texting 838255 and online through the Veterans Crisis Line website.

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

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