On Thursday, July 10, 2014, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a hearing titled, “Service Should Not Lead to Suicide: Access to VA’s Mental Health Care.” The hearing featured two panels; survivors of suicide, officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veteran service organizations.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) submitted a statement for the record on the dangers that delayed appointments for veterans seeking mental health treatment pose to those veterans at risk for suicide. AFSP called for legislative and policy proposals that will further the VA’s current efforts to prevent suicide among our nation’s veterans including:
- Funding the VA at the highest levels possible to ensure the delivery of timely, high-quality mental health care and crisis services including the Veterans Crisis Line;
- Supporting efforts of an interoperable medical record between the Department of Defense and the VA. The lack of coordinated care impairs the VA's ability to identify and respond to individuals who were high risk of suicide in the service while in the Service; and,
- Addressing the critical shortage of mental health providers within the VA by recruiting and retaining mental health providers through bonuses, incentives and student loan reimbursement programs that would pay a portion of a provider’s loan debt for every year of service.
The first panel included the parents of veterans who died by suicide (Daniel Somers, Clay Hunt, and Brian Portwine) and U.S. Army Seargeant (Ret.) John Renschler. They shared their son’s personal stories and experiences using VA mental health care services and gave suggestions on how to improve mental health care within the VA. These included funding for VA to hire more mental health professionals, efforts to integrate care records between the Department of Defense (DoD) and VA, the need to educate VA staff on the warning signs of suicide, how those in immediate crisis must be cared for immediately and followed up with on a routine basis to ensure they are getting the mental health care treatment they have earned.
The second panel featured representatives from the VA and veteran service organizations including Maureen McCarthy M.D., Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer, Veterans Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Harold Kudler M.D., Acting Chief Consultant for Mental Health Services, Veterans Health Administration; David Carroll Ph.D., National Mental Health Program Director for Program Integration, Veterans Health Administration; Michael Fisher, Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Specialist, Veterans Health Administration; Alex Nicholson, Legislative Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; Lt. Gen. Martin R. Steele (USMC, Ret.), Associate Vice President for Veterans Research, Executive Director of Military Partnerships, Co-Chair of the Veterans Reintegration Steering Committee, University of South Florida; Warren Goldstein, Assistant Director for TBI and PTSD Programs, National Veteran Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, The American Legion; and Jonathan Sherin M.D., Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, Executive Vice President for Military Communities, Volunteers of America.
HVAC members expressed their continuing frustration with the VA over its mental health care delivery. Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Ranking Member Mike Michaud (D-MN) stated it was unacceptable that at certain VA health facilities veterans are waiting in some cases over a year for an appointment and about one-third of VA health facilities are not meeting the required 14-day window for scheduling appointments. Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Michaud, and other members of the HVAC pledged to do all they can to work with the VA to improve its mental health care delivery and suicide prevention programs.
AFSP thanks Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Ranking Member Michaud, and Committee members for the opportunity to provide a statement for the record and looks forward to working with the Committee, VA and other interested partners to prevent suicide among our nation’s veterans.