House Democrats and administration officials appear poised to push past simmering tensions to craft new veterans suicide prevention legislation that would push grants to community providers in an effort to extend mental health care to more current and former service members.
The proposal — still not finalized — would create a three-year pilot program which would award up to $750,000 to organizations that provide local support services to veterans traditionally not served by the Department of Veterans Affairs, in an effort to assist them through times of crisis and hopefully link them to other existing federal support programs.
The idea has languished in Congress since early summer, with concerns about which programs will be eligible and how the services provided will be monitored.
VA officials have pushed the concept as a key step ahead in national suicide prevention efforts. About 20 veterans and current service members commit suicide every day, according to department estimates. Of that number, about 14 have no regular contact with VA staff.
“This is not an attempt to circumvent VA health care,” said department Secretary Robert Wilkie in testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Wednesday.
“This is an attempt at triage on the streets, and in our rural areas, to help us find those veterans we cannot touch, and perhaps save them from the consequences that they have experienced as a result of their service.”
A White House task force is examining the idea as part of a broader review of executive branch suicide prevention efforts, but its report on solutions isn’t due until next March. Wilkie argued passing legislation quickly would allow officials to act more quickly to help veterans in distress.
House Democrats and Republicans have sparred over delays in moving the bill, despite bipartisan support within Congress for the idea. Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., defended that wait on Wednesday, noting that he had significant concerns about tracking the money and ensuring it would go to effective community outreach.
The latest compromise proposal — which has yet to be finalized — would give grant preference to “organizations that have demonstrated the ability to coordinate suicide prevention services” and provide some matching funds to support the outreach programs. Lawmakers are still negotiating how established those groups must be to qualify for funding, and whether smaller organizations will be excluded from the program.
The community groups would also be required to encourage veterans to seek help within the existing VA infrastructure, in an effort to not duplicate existing services.
The drafts received strong support from both parties and Wilkie, who said he believed the changes still bring the plan in line with the successful federal community grant program used to significantly reduce veterans homelessness over the last decade.
But that support came after a series of tense exchanges between Wilkie and Takano over the VA’s lobbying for the legislation in recent months.
Takano accused the department of lobbying lawmakers to publicly support earlier drafts in an attempt to undermine negotiations on the bill, and criticized recent op-eds pushing for faster committee action. Wilkie responded that the department is pushing for solutions, not political victories.
Last month, Republicans on the committee walked out of a separate legislative mark-up over Democratic leadership’s handling of amendments, including delays in the suicide prevention grants discussion.
Committee members held a closed-door meeting last week to debate those disagreements, and to work on the compromise proposal. Committee ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he is hopeful those fights can be put in the past.
“We have veterans who won’t walk into VA for certain reasons,” he said. “We need to get to them.”
Takano said he expects to move the legislation out of committee and to a full House vote in coming weeks.
Despite focused efforts from VA, Congress and community activists in recent years, department estimates have shown little change in the number of suicides among veterans and service members.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.