“I lasted about three hours behind the desk before convincing them to send me back to Vietnam,” a veteran from WaKeeney, Kan. shared with me last month at an Honor Flight recognizing Kansas veterans at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
He was recalling his short stint working a desk job at the Pentagon after returning from his first deployment to Vietnam; on his first day of work, he was already offering to be sent right back out for another tour. He ended up serving 2 1/2 years in Vietnam, earning five Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars.
This veteran, and the thousands of veterans I’ve met since being elected to Congress, offer personal and important perspectives on what it means to serve and what kinds of services they need and expect from our federal government. Access to timely, quality healthcare is usually at the top of their list, so making certain they receive the health care benefits they deserve, particularly access to mental health services, is at the top of mine. September, Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, served as an important reminder regarding the needs of our veterans and how critical mental health programs can be in saving the lives of our nation’s heroes.
I was outraged by the 2014 VA wait-time scandal in Phoenix, Ariz. when veterans were left waiting over 100 days for urgent care. Heroes like the Wakeeney veteran I met on the Honor Flight should not have to wait 100 days or drive 100 miles to receive quality healthcare, no matter what kind of care they need, be it a regular checkup or immediate crisis care. There are still far too many veterans in situations where mental healthcare could make the difference between life and death.
In April, I chaired a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies hearing on preventing veteran suicide, yielding a serious discussion about the importance of access to timely care through the Veterans Crisis Line and outreach to those in need. Whether from dedicated VA specialists and providers who care deeply about veterans, or community programs such as the Military Veterans Project led by activist and Kansan, Melissa Jarboe, these programs remain imperative to caring for our veterans.
The Veterans Crisis Line is an important asset to preventing veteran suicide and connecting veterans with individuals who can provide the care they need. Secretary Shulkin has made suicide prevention his number one clinical priority and is increasing VA’s capacity to serve with the recently announced Veterans Crisis Line Call Center in Topeka, Kan. – the third of its kind – to increase the number of responders to provide veterans the support they need, when they need it.
Last month, I visited the Phoenix VA to assess its progress over the past three years given the changes in their management. I am encouraged by the unique programs that the medical center leadership has put in place to help veterans, including the many new mental health resources underway. We discussed the increased emphasis on mental health and suicide prevention programs at the VA and the need for more mental health providers to care for veterans, either in the VA or in the community.
The progress at the VA in Phoenix is encouraging and serves as a model for VA facilities and community providers to replicate, particularly because suicide remains at a startling rate of 20 veterans per day and, on average, 14 of those veterans are not connected to their local VA.
After visiting the Phoenix VA, I asked Secretary Shulkin about his efforts to hire more mental health providers during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on suicide prevention. Although the VA plans to hire an additional 1,000 mental health providers, I want to make certain they are seeking a variety of professionals – psychologists, peer specialists, marriage and family therapists (MFT), suicide prevention coordinators, and licensed professional mental health counselors (LPMHC) – to best serve veterans with critical mental health care. With access to care through increased outreach, the hiring of additional mental health providers, and partnering with community programs, it is my hope we can connect more veterans with the help they need and we can save more lives.
For those who answered a higher calling like the veteran I met from Wakeeney, Kan., this is a fight that we must take on as we work to care for those who never gave up defending our nation.
U.S. Senator Jerry Moran represents Kansas in the Senate. Sen. Moran chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies and serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
NOTE: This op-ed originally ran in Modern Healthcare's special supplement, "The 115th Congress on the State of Healthcare."