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Senator Murray: “We promise to take care of our veterans after they serve our country, and that includes ensuring they have access to quality care, including mental health care, when and where they need it”

(Washington, D.C.) – Yesterday, as National Suicide Prevention Month drew to a close, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) sent a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough calling on him to continue strengthening VA’s  mental health services, including suicide prevention efforts, and improving access to these services. In the letter, Senator Murray noted that recent events, including the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, highlighted the need for continued support of veterans’ mental health.

“We promise to take care of our veterans after they serve our country, and that includes ensuring they have access to quality care, including mental health care, when and where they need it. I appreciate your prioritization of mental health care services through VA and look forward to continuing to work together to make certain we fulfill the promise to care for our veterans,” Senator Murray wrote.

Based on state-level data provided in VA's National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the rate of suicide among the veteran population in Washington state has fluctuated in recent years, but increased overall from 2001 to 2019. Additionally, the rate at which veterans, servicemembers, and their family members die by suicide remains significantly higher than the general population. In light of this data, Senator Murray made clear in the letter that VA must do more to address suicide among the veteran population, including through improving, evaluating, and continuing the new and varied approaches to suicide prevention that VA has adopted over the past two decades.

Read the full letter below or HERE.

Dear Secretary McDonough:

As National Suicide Prevention Month comes to a close, I write to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to continue its work strengthening existing mental health services, including suicide prevention efforts, and improving access to these services. Recent events have highlighted the need for continued support, and I appreciate V A's swift action in distributing information on resources to veterans over the past few weeks following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

VA recently published its 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report which showed the veteran suicide count and rate decreased in 2019 from 201 7 and 2018. While the data presented in that report shows V A's strategies can work, VA needs to continue its work to reach every veteran, especially as they navigate today's challenges, including the end of the war in Afghanistan and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on state-level data provided with VA's National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the rate of suicide among the veteran population in Washington state has fluctuated in recent years, but the veteran suicide count has increased overall from 2001 to 2019. This trend is consistent with the increase in the rate of suicide among the national military and veteran community. While the rate of suicide among the general population has followed a similar trajectory, the rate at which veterans, servicemembers, and their family members die by suicide remains significantly higher. This data makes clear that VA must do more to address suicide among the veteran population, including through improving, evaluating, and continuing the new and varied approaches to suicide prevention that VA has adopted over the past two decades.

As veterans reach out for help, we need to ensure our systems are able to respond. The Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) has seen a sharp uptick in calls since the Taliban took control of Kabul in mid-August. Texts to the hotline jumped 98% between August 14 and August 29, while chat messages and calls rose by 40% and 7% when compared with the same time frame last year, according to VA. Although it is promising that more veterans are using the VCL, the statistics also demonstrate an increase in the need for services. I encourage VA to continue to monitor the VCL and expand its workforce as need increases.

Further, I ask that you evaluate the Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) human resources procedures and staffing levels to ensure that mental health staff positions are filled in a timely manner to ensure the lack of available providers is not a barrier to accessing mental health care. As more veterans receive care through the Community Care Network and patient records travel outside VA facilities, I caution VA to ensure veterans are still able to receive quality, culturally­competent mental health care services in a timely manner, whether at VA facilities or through the community. I continue to hear from providers who are frustrated by the re-credentialing process in the transition to the Community Care Network.

I also caution VA to ensure their patient records are updated in a timely manner to ensure VA health care providers have a complete record and are able to follow up with veterans who might be at high risk for suicide. I urge the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to evaluate the effectiveness of the January 2020 change to its High Risk for Suicide Patient Record Flag process modifying the timeline for placing flags on these patient records. As the VA Office of the Inspector General noted in its recently published Comprehensive Healthcare Inspection of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, this policy change could result in delayed placement of flags for at-risk patients. We know from the Department's research that veterans who go without VHA engagement for a period of time can be at higher risk for suicide.

Finally, I strongly encourage VA to continue to ensure its services are accessible, especially to those facing the highest barriers to access, so that veterans can utilize their earned benefits such as health care, housing assistance, education and employment opportunities, and all other VA services to feel fully integrated and supported in their communities and lead fulfilling lives.

We promise to take care of our veterans after they serve our country, and that includes ensuring they have access to quality care, including mental health care, when and where they need it. I appreciate your prioritization of mental health care services through VA and look forward to continuing to work together to make certain we fulfill the promise to care for our veterans.

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