Bipartisan legislation aimed at combating veteran suicide signed into law


FILE – In this March 31, 2020, file photo a U.S. Army soldier walks inside a mobile surgical unit being set up by soldiers from Fort Carson, Col., and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) as part of a field hospital inside CenturyLink Field Event Center, in Seattle. Military suicides have increased by as much as 20% this year compared to the same period last year, and some incidents of violent behavior have spiked, as service members struggle with isolation and other impacts of COVID-19 added to the pressures of war-zone deployments and responding to national disasters and civil unrest. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

WASHINGTON (WAVY) — A bipartisan legislation designed to combat veteran suicide was recently signed into law.

The “Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act” is a comprehensive and aggressive strategy to reach more veterans with the services and resources, including mental health care, that they need. 

The bipartisan legislation includes provisions that:

  • Authorizes a community grant program through the VA that will enhance outreach in the community to help identify isolated veterans and provide services aimed at identifying veterans within the community who may be in need of assistance.
    • The bill also expands eligibility for comprehensive VA mental health services to all veterans with Other Than Honorable discharges if they are referred to the VA through an organization in the grant program.
    • The provision builds upon the proven, successful model that Veterans Bridge Home in Charlotte has been operating for years, and allows the rest of the country to follow in their footsteps.
  • Requires VA to provide a detailed plan, including resourcing requirements, to implement SAFE VET on a nationwide, uniform basis. Suicide Assessment and Follow-up Engagement: Veteran Emergency Treatment (SAFE VET) is a relatively new clinical intervention that is associated with 45 percent fewer suicidal behaviors in the six-month period following emergency department care and more than doubles the odds of a veteran engaging in outpatient behavioral health care. 

The VA estimates that around 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Unfortunately that number has remained unchanged despite Congress more than tripling the VA’s funding for suicide prevention efforts over the last ten years to nearly $222 million in FY20. Only six of the 20 veterans who die by suicide each day receive health care services from the VA before their death.

The legislation co-introduced by North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis and Virginia Senator Mark Warner is said to improve outreach to veterans and offer mental health care options including:

  • Bolster the VA’s mental health workforce to serve more veterans by giving the VA direct hiring authority for more mental health professionals, offering scholarships to mental health professionals to work at Vet Centers and placing at least one Suicide Prevention Coordinator in every VA hospital.
  • Improve rural veterans’ access to mental health care by increasing the number of locations at which veterans can access VA telehealth services and offering grants to non-VA organizations that provide mental health services or alternative treatment to veterans.
  • Strengthen support and assistance for servicemembers transitioning out of the military by automatically giving every servicemember one full year of VA health care when they leave the military and improving services that connect transitioning veterans with career and education opportunities.
  • Study and invest in innovative and alternative treatment options by expanding veterans’ access to animal, outdoor or agri-therapy, yoga, meditation and acupuncture. Investing in VA research on the impact of living at high altitude on veterans’ suicide risk and identifying and treating mental illness.
  • Hold the VA accountable for its mental health care and suicide prevention efforts by examining how the VA manages its suicide prevention resources and how the VA provides seamless care and information sharing for veterans seeking mental health care from both the VA and community providers.

“This bill – now a law – is for every veteran throughout our nation’s history who has struggled to cope with the invisible wounds of war, ” said Warner. “The signing of this legislation today reaffirms our nation’s commitment to veterans and sends the message that every person who serves our country is deserving of the basic tools and resources needed to heal those wounds,”

“With this bipartisan legislation being signing into law, we are taking another step forward to combating veteran suicides and reducing the number of veterans who take their own lives,” said Senator Tillis.

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