Stopping Veteran Suicides: VA Not Reaching the Veterans that Need the Help
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, led by Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA), held a hearing to examine mental health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The hearing, "Stopping Suicides: Examining the Mental Health Challenges Facing the Department of Veterans Affairs," focused on how best the VA should address the mental health care needs of returning active duty forces, including the National Guard and Reserves.
"We need to be positioning ourselves now to provide the assistance that our veterans need," said Chairman Filner. "Not only for those brave men and women who are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also for our veterans from previous conflicts. We cannot afford to put this issue off."
"The VA mental health system is broken in function, and understaffed in operation," said Mike Bowman, parent of Specialist Tim Bowman who committed suicide in 2005. "There are many cases of soldiers coming to the VA for help and being turned away or misdiagnosed for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and then losing their battle with their demons. Those soldiers, as well as our son Timothy, can never be brought back. No one can change that fact. But you can change the system so this trend can be slowed down dramatically or even stopped."
A recent CBS News Report found the rate of suicide among veterans is double that of the general population, increasing concern over the mental health of returning veterans and the ability of the VA to meet the demands placed upon its health care system by this population. The story can be found at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/13/cbsnews_investigates/main3496471.shtml.
There are approximately 25 million veterans in the United States and 5 million veterans currently receive health care through the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). VHA estimates that there are approximately 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care through VHA and as many as 5,000 suicides per year among all living veterans.
In May 2007, the Office of Inspector General at the VA released a report, "Healthcare Inspection: Implementing VHA's Mental Health Strategic Plan Initiatives for Suicide Prevention," that can be found online at http://www.va.gov/oig/54/reports/VAOIG-06-03706-126.pdf.
"The rate of veteran suicide has reached epidemic proportions," said Chairman Filner. "Suicide can be a very difficult public health crisis to gauge. I am more troubled by a lack of response from the VA than I am at not having perfect statistics. We need to hear from the VA what this agency needs in order to reach out to all veterans. We know that the images of war trigger reactions in veterans from past conflicts. We need to go find Vietnam veterans and help them. We are not reaching the people that need the help."
The 110th Congress has taken action to reverse the troubling trend. Congress has passed legislation that would ensure treatment for mental health care and would require the VA to develop a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention. The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act became law on November 5, 2007. The following bills address the health care needs of veterans and are currently pending in Congress:
- H.R. 2199, the Traumatic Brain Injury Health Enhancement and Long-Term Support Act of 2007;
- H.R. 2874, the Veterans' Health Care Improvement Act of 2007; and
- H.R. 612, the Returning Servicemember VA Healthcare Insurance Act of 2007.
"I do not believe that the VA has the tools it needs to support returning veterans," said Chairman Filner. "I believe that care is available and I believe that treatment works - but I know that much more must be done to reach the veterans that need help. We need to find those that need help but do not seek it. We need to educate those that are hurting but do not recognize it. We need to equip family members and communities across the country with information to help our heroes. Our veterans are returning with injuries that we cannot see. The VA needs to find the veteran, meet with the veteran and serve the veteran - the way that veteran served our country."