U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Monday the plague of suicide among veterans has been building for half a century and was now consuming the lives of men and women who were contemporaries of his late father at a rate of 20 per day.
Wilkie, who has led the Department of Veterans Affairs since March 2018, was in Topeka to visit staff and patients at Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center. He spoke afterward about the VA’s response to mental health challenges of veterans, especially men and women isolated in rural areas or on Native American reservations far from VA medical facilities or clinics. On average, 14 of the suicide victims had never come in contact with the VA.
“The majority of those veterans who are taking their lives that we don’t see are from my father’s era,” said Wilkie, speaking of Robert Wilkie Sr., who served in Vietnam and earned three Purple Heart medals. “The goal here is to find those veterans, particularly in rural Kansas, and get them into this system so that we can help them.”
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican preparing to assume chairmanship of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said lawmakers should adopt legislation requiring the Federal Communications Commission to change the 1-800 number for the Veterans Crisis Line to a three-digit code for the benefit of people contemplating suicide.
He said mental health counseling for veterans should be funneled through existing community mental health centers. He requested the VA make Kansas the next state added to a system that authorized pharmacies, churches and other venues to host confidential telemedicine sessions for veterans interacting by video with the VA.
Moran said shortages of VA social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists could be alleviated by hiring marriage and family therapists from the private sector to engage with veterans.
“A lot of the needs are not being met, in large part, because of distance and because of lack of providers,” Moran said. “The distance part is significant because, if you are suicidal, time matters.”
He also said health problems attributed to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam and toxic substances in Afghanistan and Iraq required attention of the government because damage has been passed on to their children and grandchildren.
VA patient Jessie James Bell, who served in the Air Force and Navy, said if given an opportunity he would ask the VA secretary to clarify implications of the bill signed in June by President Donald Trump replacing the troubled Veterans Choice Program with the VA Mission Act.
The Choice program enabled veterans who had to wait more than 30 days for a VA appointment or lived more than 40 miles from a VA facility to get health care at a private-sector clinic or hospital. The Mission act is similar, but designed to address shortcomings of the Choice program.
Bell said he was puzzled as to how veterans were to use the Mission act. He was anxious that growing emphasis on private-care options would lead to privatization of the VA system, which he opposed.
“If I give you the best years of my physical life, I shouldn’t be treated like this,” Bell said.
During a news conference, Wilkie said the VA was overhauling the way it communicated with the nation’s 9.5 million veterans. He said the VA last year awarded a $10 billion contract to Cerner Corp. of North Kansas City, Mo., to create a new electronic health record system so veterans wouldn’t have to lug around piles of documents to access the VA. It would match the IT system Cerner is building for the U.S. Department of Defense.
“It means integration of VA into the wider American health care system,” Wilkie said.
Otherwise, Wilkie and Moran said veterans uncertain of their benefits or how to access health resources should reach out to the VA, congressional offices and military organizations for guidance.
“I’d advise anyone to come to this center and talk to the leadership and ask those questions,” the VA secretary said.
Moran said he was convinced the Mission act was a step in the right direction.
“I will do everything I can to make sure that this secretary and his Department of Veterans Affairs implements that act in a way that reduces the bureaucracy and paperwork, gets our providers paid and, most importantly, makes certain that veterans … can access services,” Moran said.
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