“I'll probably ask for more or allocate more (to the effort),” Wilkie told lawmakers during a sometimes tense Capitol Hill. hearing on the issue this week. “This is a national tragedy.”
On Monday, a Government Accountability Office report blasted department officials for failing to spend millions in outreach and public awareness funds related to veterans suicide prevention last fiscal year. Only about only $57,000 — less than 1 percent — was actually spent.
Millions of dollars set aside for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal 2019 went unused, and public awareness campaigns disappeared from national media.
Wilkie and other VA leader blamed the misstep on management gaps within the department’s suicide prevention office, and noted that millions have been spent in recent months as new leadership has been put in place.
The department’s top suicide prevention post was vacant from July 2017 to April 2018, and Wilkie said operations are only now recovering from that delay.
“The problem we had before is that there was no plan,” he said to reporters after the hearing. “My commitment was to create a robust office for suicide prevention, which is what we are doing now.”
But lawmakers from the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee expressed concerns that VA leadership is not following through with its years-long promise to make suicide prevention a top priority for the department.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the unspent money “a failure of leadership.” Incoming House committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., called it a “shameful” mistake.
“VA offers excellent mental health services, but to quote Disabled American Veterans: ‘They are useless in preventing suicide if veterans and family members don’t know they exist,’” he said.
Steven Lieberman, the executive in charge at the Veterans Health Administration, said he and other suicide prevention officials are now reviewing that outreach budget monthly to ensure “we are spending the funding 100 percent.” Wilkie repeatedly insisted that suicide prevention remains the department’s top clinical priority.
Department officials say they are on track to put new veterans medical rules in place by June, but advocates worry they haven't seen details so far.
Lawmakers promised additional oversight — to possibly include more hearings — on the issue next session. The GAO report also criticized VA for limited metrics to measure success of the outreach efforts, another point that members of Congress promised to challenge VA leaders on in months to come.
According to department estimates, about 20 veterans a day commit suicide in America. About 14 of those have had little or no contact with VA in recent months, a statistic that advocates say illustrates the need for more outreach by the department.
To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.