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VA leaves nearly $5 million unused in 2018 campaign to battle suicide, watchdog finds

A member of the 407th Air Expeditionary Group renders a salute during a retreat ceremony as the base honor guard lowers the colors on June 3rd, 2006, while deployed to Ali Base, Iraq. (Staff Sgt. Jonathan Pomeroy/U.S. Air Force)

A federal investigation found the money and effort expended by the Department of Veterans Affairs on suicide prevention outreach dropped significantly in 2017 and 2018, despite it being touted by the past two VA secretaries as their top clinical priority.

Following a yearlong investigation, the Government Accountability Office reported Monday that the VA has cut back since 2016 on suicide prevention outreach. Of the $6.2 million budget obligated for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal year 2018, the agency had spent only $57,000, or less than 1 percent, by September. Agency officials told investigators they would end up spending a total $1.5 million by Oct. 1, the end of the fiscal year. The remainder, $4.7 million, went unused.

The number of social media posts, public service announcements, billboards, and radio, bus, Facebook and print advertisements declined in 2017 and 2018, as did the effort on suicide prevention month.

“VA has stated that preventing veteran suicide is its top clinical priority, yet [the Veterans Health Administration’s] lack of leadership attention to its suicide prevention media outreach campaign in recent years has resulted in less outreach to veterans,” the GAO report states.

Suicide among veterans is disproportionately higher than the rest of the U.S. population, with an estimated 20 veterans dying by suicide each day, according to VA data. Among veterans younger than 35, the number of suicides has increased substantially in recent years.

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Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, requested the GAO investigation. He said Monday that the findings conveyed “a deeply troubling level of incompetence” by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“At a time when 20 veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to veterans in crisis,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority.”

The VA had increased its suicide prevention outreach efforts from 2013 to 2016.

Its social media posts about suicide prevention had grown to 339 in 2016. In 2017, it dropped to 157 posts. During the first 10 months of 2018, the VA posted about suicide prevention just 47 times.

Starting in June 2012, the VA consistently aired suicide preventions PSAs every month, either on the television or radio. When GAO investigators looked into the issue in August 2018, the VA hadn’t aired a PSA in over a year.

The agency also stopped using its budget for suicide prevention ads.

In fiscal year 2015, the VA had a suicide prevention media budget of $4 million. With that, the agency ran 58 online advertisements and bought 30 billboards, 180 bus ads, 19,000 radio ads, 252 print ads and 39 PSAs.

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Comparatively, the VA used only a small portion of its budget in fiscal year 2018 to purchase 25 online ads, 20 billboards and eight radio advertisements.

In 2017, the VA had a budget of $1.7 million for suicide prevention and other mental health outreach. The VA spent about $136,000, or less than 10 percent, on suicide prevention. Also in 2017, the VA had a “limited effort” for suicide prevention month in September because they didn’t prepare, the GAO found.

The VA blamed leadership vacancies for the downturn.

The position of national director for suicide prevention was vacant for nine months following the resignation of the former director, Caitlin Thompson, in July 2017. The VA hired a new director, Keita Franklin, in April.

“Officials reported not having leadership available for a period of time to make decisions about the suicide prevention media outreach campaign,” the report states. “GAO found that [VA] did not assign key leadership responsibilities or establish clear lines of reporting, and as a result, its ability to oversee the outreach campaign was hindered. Consequently, [the VA] may not be maximizing its reach with suicide prevention media content to veterans, especially those who are at-risk.”

In a letter responding to the report, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie reasserted his commitment to suicide prevention outreach.

“Every death by suicide is a tragedy, and we will not relent in our efforts to connect veterans in need with lifesaving support,” the response reads.

VA officials acknowledged “organizational transitions and realignments” created confusion from mid-2017 to mid-2018, but they claimed there has since been significant improvements.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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