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Hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee - Service Should Not Lead to Suicide: Access to VA's Mental Health Care


Location: Washington, DC

Good Morning, and thank you Mr. Chairman for holding this hearing today.

We have had many discussions and debates about how to deliver the best healthcare services to our nation's veterans, and how to ensure accountability within the leadership ranks of the VA.

Over the course of these recent hearings and discussions, we have touched on a number of important issues. But one that we haven't zeroed in on too much yet has been access to mental healthcare and suicide prevention services for our veterans. That's why this hearing today is so important.

I'd like to thank all of our panelists for joining us today, but in particular I want to thank the family members joining us who have lost loved ones -- Howard and Jean Somers, Susan Selke and Peggy Portwine.

I know that speaking about the loss of a loved one -- particularly a child -- can be an incredibly difficult and exhausting experience. But, in this case, I believe we can and must honor the memories of the children of Howard and Jean, Susan, and Peggy.

We can listen to their stories, identify what went wrong, and we can take action to ensure those failures aren't repeated. So thank you very, very much for joining us today and sharing your stories.

Eighteen to 22 veterans commit suicide each day. In my opinion, that is 18 to 22 brave men and women each day who our system has let down in some capacity. It is a totally unacceptable figure.

When a veteran is experiencing depression or other early warning signs that may indicate mental health issues or even suicide, that must be treated like an immediate medical crisis, because that is exactly what it is. Veterans in that position should never be forced to wait months on end for a medical consult because quite frankly, that is time they may not have.

We have taken steps to help put in place programs and initiatives aimed at early detection, and we have significantly increased our funding. VA spending on mental health has doubled since 2007. But it's not working as well as we would hope, and we have to figure out why -- and how we can correct these problems.

Our veterans are the ones paying the price for this dysfunction. A 2012 IG report found that VHA's data on whether it was providing timely access to mental health services is totally unreliable.

And a GAO report from that year not only confirmed that disturbing finding, but also said that inconsistent implementation of VHA's scheduling policies made it difficult -- if not near impossible -- to get patients the help they need when they need it. That is a problem we have seen repeatedly as we dig into the VA's dysfunctions, and enough is enough.

Our veterans and their families deserve a VA that delivers timely mental health services that cover a spectrum of needs, from PTSD, to counseling for family members of veterans, to urgent, round-the-clock responses to a veteran in need. A recent VA OIG report found that in one facility patients waited up to 432 days -- well over a year -- for care.

So once again, we are finding that our veterans deserve much better than the care they are receiving.

And of all the areas we must address, I would argue that fixing mental health services is among the most urgent. I look forward to a productive discussion that we will only begin today, but certainly continue over the coming days, weeks and months.

Thank you Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

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