Veterans Affairs officials want to drop copay expenses for veterans facing mental health challenges as a way to encourage more individuals to seek help when facing suicidal thoughts.
Department leaders on Wednesday published plans in the Federal Register to modify VA’s copayment rules, with the goal of reforming the policy in coming months.
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the move is part of broader suicide prevention and health care outreach efforts by the department.
“Research shows increased frequency of outpatient mental health encounters for high-risk Veterans reduces their risk of suicide,” he said. “Through these efforts, VA will continue to address this national public health crisis by further eliminating financial burdens on veterans which may negatively influence their engagement in mental health treatment and their critical medication availability.”
Veterans who use VA as their primary health care provider do not have to pay any extra fees when receiving care at a department hospital. But veterans seeking mental care at outpatient clinics can face copayments for appointments, typically ranging from $15 to $50.
Advocates say even those small amounts can present a potential barrier to a veteran in distress who needs immediate assistance. And the costs can compound quickly in cases where veterans need multiple visits in a month, often to refill medications.
Officials said the new move “would reduce the financial burden of multiple co-payments associated with both increased outpatient visits as well as more frequent, but limited supply of prescribed medications.”
Last fall, VA officials announced that veterans suicides across America in 2019 fell to about 17 per day, their lowest level in 12 years.
The latest data available does not take into account the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which began in March 2020, but VA officials preliminary research has not shown a significant increase in those numbers over the last two years.
Still, suicide prevention remains a key focus of VA leadership and the White House, as it has been for the last three presidential administrations. Even with the decrease, the rate of suicide among veterans remains almost double the rest of the American public.
Members of the public can comment on the planned copayment rule through the Federal Register until March 7.
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.