Despite deficiencies in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs recent budget proposal, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announced he will continue to focus efforts on a new program that will expand VA mental health care to former service members with less than honorable discharges.
On May 31, in his first State of the VA address, Shulkin stated that his new initiative “Getting To Zero” is his top clinical priority. The program, announced on March 7, marks the first time a VA Secretary has set forth an initiative to expand benefits to former other than honorable (OTH) service members who may be at risk for suicide.
Shulkin Proposes Expanding Care To OTH Service Members
To be launched this summer, Getting To Zero aims to bring veteran suicide rates to zero. While service members with less than honorable or OTH discharges are at the highest risk of suicide, the VA does not currently offer benefits for the more than 500,000 former service members with these discharges.
An average of 20 veterans per day lose their lives to suicide. As things stand, only six of the 20 are eligible for VA benefits.
“We know the rate of death by suicide among Veterans who do not use VA care is increasing at a greater rate than Veterans who use VA care,” Shulkin said. “This is a national emergency that requires bold action. We must and we will do all that we can to help former service members who may be at risk. When we say even one Veteran suicide is one too many, we mean it.”
Shulkin’s initiative includes several plans to help bring down veteran suicide rates, including:
- Expanding Vet Center or VA Emergency care to OTH service members
- Hiring 1,000 additional mental health providers
- Increasing calling centers and staff in rural areas
- Analyzing veterans’ health records to identify and contact those at highest risk
Currently, the VA’s suicide hotline is at 95 staff members and a response rate of 20 seconds per call. Shulkin also hopes to implement programs to help prevent veteran homelessness, another cause of veteran suicide.
VA Budget Proposal Increases Mental Health Care 6%
While the VA’s recent budget proposal sets aside $8.4 billion for veterans’ mental health care, up 6% from 2017, this may not be enough to provide the volume of care that could result from expanding benefits to less than honorable discharges.
In early May, Representative Charlie Dent asked Shulkin how the VA planned to cover the “added costs into your budget, when you’re obviously already struggling to cover expenses for your current VA patients.” Shulkin announced that he does not plan to request more funding for mental health care.
“There is no higher priority, so we will do this within the funding the president has proposed,” Shulkin said. “We are not going to let the fact there are not additional monies right now to prevent us from offering these additional services.”
Veterans with mental health concerns can currently receive counseling by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or by texting 838255.
If you are veteran who has suffered negligent treatment at a VA hospital, or a family member who has lost a loved one to suicide, our experienced veteran’s medical malpractice attorneys help clients collect damages and financial compensation. Contact us at 888.878.9350 or E-mail US to arrange a free consultation.