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Veterans Affairs Department officials said Tuesday they will make several changes to the department's suicide prevention programs as part of ongoing efforts to reverse the tide of suicides among military veterans.

Following recommendations made by veterans advocates and suicide prevention groups at a veterans suicide summit in Washington in February, VA officials said they will improve mental health services to include providing same-day evaluations and access to care for veterans who need immediate help.

According to a press release on the changes, the VA also will establish three regional telehealth hubs focused on mental health treatment and provide additional resources to the VA suicide prevention program office.

VA also will launch several suicide studies, including research on the impact of deployment and combat exposure on Afghanistan and Iraq veterans and a study using suicide and suicide attempt data to prevent deaths and develop early interventions.

VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin called suicide prevention a "shared responsibility" between VA and communities.

"We all have an obligation to help veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of military service that lead them to think suicide is their only option," Shulkin said. "We must and will do more."

Under the new initiatives, the Veterans Health Administration also will work to ensure that opioid overdose antidotes like naloxone and flumazenil are available throughout VA hospitals and clinics.

Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin has been pressing for this change since a constituent, former Marine Jason Simcakoski, died of an accidental overdose at the Tomah VA Medical Center in 2014.

During a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing last Thursday, Baldwin said staff at the hospital needed to obtain the antidote from a nearby urgent care clinic because the crash cart on Simcakoski’s hall did not carry it.

According to Baldwin, the medication arrived in Simcakoski's room "some 33 minutes later after he was found unresponsive."

Shulkin said VA prescribed 18,000 prescriptions for naloxone and is working to distribute "these kits out to community partners and in various areas."

The VA in 2012 estimated that 22 veterans die each day by suicide, but the number is an extrapolation derived from 1999-2011 data from 21 states, and the VA and advocacy groups say it should be interpreted with caution.

VA is in the process of working with states and the CDC to obtain concrete data by midyear on the extent of the issue.

During the Washington summit, advocates made a number of recommendations to address veterans suicide, to include designating a single organization to lead prevention efforts, changing privacy laws to allow doctors to discuss patient's mental state with family members and ensuring veterans easily transition from Defense Department to VA medical care.

Jackie Maffucci, the director of research for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who spoke at the summit, called the VA’s new prevention steps "bold” and said the VA deserves praise for taking action.

"IAVA is gratified the VA has moved swiftly to follow our recommendation to elevate the suicide prevention office. Elevating this office to the level of the secretary and building a line-itemed budget to support [its mission] will be critical to ensuring its ability to meet it," Maffucci said.

The latest announcement follows a series of changes at VA to address veterans suicide. In addition to hosting the February summit, VA also shifted oversight of its suicide hotline to a manager with a proven track record for improving call centers and has been upgrading the Veterans Crisis Line's technology and staffing to better serve veterans.

The Veterans Crisis Line had been under fire since a VA Office of Inspector General investigation found that some veterans' calls went to voice mail in 2014 while other veterans were placed on hold.

Veterans needing mental health support can call the hotline 24/7 at 800-273-8255, press 1. Chatting is available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by texting 838255.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for the Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com

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