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New legislation seeks to provide staff, funding, research to help prevent veteran suicides

Airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base march in the Wayne County Veterans Day Parade, Nov. 11, 2017, in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Originally called "Armistice Day" in honor of the veterans of World War I, Nov. 11 was later renamed "Veterans Day" to honor all men and women who served in uniform. (Airman 1st Class Kenneth Boyton/U.S. Air Force)

Legislation introduced in the Senate this week aims to tackle the nation’s veteran suicide epidemic by boosting funding, mental health staff, alternative therapies and research at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bill, introduced by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has 18 parts that range from creating incentives to entice more mental health providers to work at the VA to researching the possibility that living at high altitudes increases suicide risk.

Tester had hinted at the introduction of the bill last month. At a news conference Wednesday announcing the bill, he said it “has grown every day,” with ideas included from mental health experts, veterans groups and the 20 senators who are backing it.

“This bill will build on what the VA is doing right when it comes to mental health treatment and suicide prevention, while filling in the gaps,” Tester said.

The bill is titled the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act after a retired Navy commander who died by suicide Feb. 25, 2018 at age 46.

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Hannon served in the Navy for 23 years and later settled in Helena, Montana. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, severe depression and bipolar disorder. His family said he spoke candidly about his mental health struggles and advocated to improve veterans’ access to mental health care.

“In the final chapter of his life, John Scott advocated for easier access and a broader approach to mental health care,” said Kim Parrott, Hannon’s sister. “Treatment was too fragmented and too late to save my brother’s life, but his experience enabled him to become an articulate champion for what could help other veterans facing similar mental health challenges in the future.”

Parrott said the legislation was “in complete alignment” with her brother’s beliefs.

According to the latest VA data, 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Of those, 14 are not receiving VA health care.

Suicide among veterans continues to be higher than the rest of the population, and younger veterans are particularly at risk. VA data released in September showed the rate of suicide among veterans ages 18 to 34 had significantly increased. For every 100,000 veterans in that age group, 45 committed suicide in 2016.

In the legislation, senators attempt to address the issue of suicide risk for younger veterans by building into the law an initiative that Trump announced last year that would automatically enroll every servicemember into VA mental health care for one year when they transition from active duty.

Trump signed an executive order last year to pave the way for automatic enrollment – an attempt to eliminate barriers to mental health care for veterans in the first year after their service. When asked about the progress of that effort recently, a senior administration official said only that it was “moving along.”

Moran said the bill also complements another executive order, signed by Trump last week. The order, titled the PREVENTS initiative, created a Cabinet-level task force that Trump promised would “mobilize every level of American society” to address veteran suicide.

One of the ideas offered by the White House was to provide grants to state and local governments, though officials didn’t have a budget or grant-size estimate or know the exact source of the funding. Rather, they said they would work with Congress to authorize the grants.

The legislation introduced Wednesday sets up a grant program for local organizations, outside of the VA, to provide mental health care to veterans. The bill calls for $5 million to be made available for the grants in 2021, followed by $10 million in 2022 and $15 million in 2023.

Another measure in the bill would provide $10 million to increase the availability of telehealth care to veterans in rural areas of the country.

Among its other initiatives, the legislation aims to expand alternative therapies, including yoga, meditation, acupuncture and chiropractic care, to more VA facilities, as well as invest in therapies involving animals, agriculture and outdoor sports.

It would also offer more incentives for more mental health professionals to work at the VA, invests in women-specific specialists and requires all VA hospitals to employ a suicide prevention coordinator.

Tester said the bill aims to “improve accountability and transparency” regarding the VA’s suicide prevention efforts. Part of that would be to set goals for the agency’s suicide prevention media outreach. The VA faced criticism in December when the Government Accountability Office revealed the agency used less than 1 percent of its budget for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal year 2018. Of the $6.2 million obligated, the VA had spent only $57,000 by September, the last month of the fiscal year.

As the VA implements a new law this year to expand veterans’ access to private doctors, the bill also calls for an analysis of how the agency is managing patients at high risk for suicide who use private and VA care.

The John Scott Hannon Act has the backing of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group that helps shape public policy for people suffering from mental health issues.

NAMI described it as “landmark legislation” that would help reduce veteran suicides.

It also has the backing of the American Psychological Association, American Association of Suicidology and several veterans organizations.

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