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Trump signs executive order creating task force to combat veteran suicide

President Donald Trump (Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Department of Defense)

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday creating a Cabinet-level task force that he promised would “mobilize every level of American society” to address the crisis of suicide among veterans.

The PREVENTS initiative, short for the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and the National Tragedy of Suicide, includes the secretaries of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. Over the next year, the task force will be responsible for working with public and private sectors to better understand the underlying factors of suicide and plan methods for addressing it at state and local levels. The White House plans to provide grants to state and local governments to support the initiative.

“To every veteran, I want you to know that you have an entire nation of more than 300 million people behind you,” Trump said. “You will never be forgotten. We are with you all the way.”

A senior administration official speaking on background Tuesday said they envision the initiative becoming similar to the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing and its Support Services for Veterans, which uses housing grants and referrals to end veteran homelessness.

When asked about the cost of the effort, the official didn’t have a budget or grant-size estimate or know the exact source of the funding. Trump said his administration would work with Congress to pass legislation authorizing the new grants.

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Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the Republican leaders of the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees, issued statements in support of the order.

“We look forward to working with the administration on this effort,” Isakson said.

Part of the initiative will put focus on reaching veterans who don’t use the Department of Veterans Affairs. 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. New 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, the most recent data available.

Trump signed the order Tuesday at the White House, surrounded by representatives from a dozen major veterans groups. One of them, AMVETS, issued a statement supporting the new task force but asking for more urgency as the Cabinet members create their roadmap.

“It … begs the question of what steps our government will take to actively curb veteran suicide while this blueprint is being developed over the next 365 days,” the statement reads. “If the statistics hold true over the next year, over 7,000 lives will be lost before full implementation is realized. The reality is ‘crisis’ has no patience, and neither should we.”

The executive order was the second one Trump has signed to address the issue of veterans’ mental health. Last year, he signed one to pave the way for servicemembers to be enrolled automatically in the VA when they leave the military –- an attempt to eliminate barriers to mental health care in their first year after service.

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When asked about the progress of that effort Tuesday, the senior administration official said only that it was “moving along.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called Tuesday’s order a “step in the right direction.”

“But we’ve got to keep taking an all-hands-on-deck approach when it comes to efforts to expand veterans’ access to mental health care and to improve our nation’s suicide prevention efforts,” Tester said in a statement.

In a separate effort Tuesday, Tester announced he was drafting legislation also aimed at suicide prevention.

The bill aims to support servicemembers as they transition from the Defense Department to VA health care, Tester said during a news conference hosted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It would also increase veterans’ access to remote health care, “cut the red tape” at the VA and vet centers, and invest more money into treatments such as yoga, animal therapy, meditation and acupuncture, he said.

Tester also promised accountability for the VA’s mental health and suicide prevention outreach efforts.

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 2018. Of the $6.2 million obligated, the VA had spent only $57,000 by September, the last month of the fiscal year.

“Look, we are in crisis with suicides right now in this country, and the VA needs to step up,” Tester said. “The VA needs to lead on this issue.”

Tester said he planns to introduce the bill “very soon.” He urged veterans to call their elected officials and ask them to support the legislation once it’s introduced.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

Staff writer Rose L. Thayer contributed to this report.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.