The VA is ramping up mental health funding after a rash of parking lot suicides

news
(U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Corey Hook)

Editor's Note: This article by Dorothy Mills-Gregg originally appeared onMilitary.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is proposing spending $682 million more next fiscal year on mental health issues, and ramping up funding for suicide prevention efforts by one-third, as it faces Congressional scrutiny over a series of tragic incidents on VA premises over the past year.

The VA's budget request for fiscal 2021, released Monday, totals $243.3 billion -- a dramatic 10% increase from 2020. In addition to resourcing mental health and suicide prevention, it would nearly double the amount of funding for a joint VA-Defense Department effort to create a merged electronic health records system and provide a 9% increase to the budget for women's health care.

A series of highly public veteran suicides in VA parking lots over the last five years has left the VA scrambling for better prevention measures. In a recent report on one such death in 2018, the Inspector General found institutional failures led to mental health clinicians not being alerted to the patient's condition before his death.


The proposed budget would provide $76 million over fiscal 2020 levels for the VA's suicide prevention programs like the Veteran Crisis Line, a suicide prevention hotline.

It also gives $53.4 million to the president's interagency task force on veteran suicide prevention. The President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or "Prevents," was created last year to address the veteran suicide rate, which averages 20 deaths each day.

"The Prevents Task Force will increase the government's return on investment by leveraging partnerships with private and community organizations to amplify messages and activities," VA officials wrote in a budget overview brief. "Prevents will further expand its reach through planning and implementation grants executed by other participant federal agencies."

Some $50 million of the proposed funding would go toward implementing the task force's findings, which are expected by March 5, while about $3 million would go towards its administrative functions, a senior VA official said.

However, some Democratic lawmakers are criticizing the request, saying the VA is outsourcing critical care capabilities.

"Despite significant investments in mental health care for veterans -- a top priority for the President, this Committee and VA -- these funds direct resources outside VA into grant programs and the Prevents Task Force instead of being used to explicitly support veterans in crisis at VA," Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, said in a statement Monday.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman also raised issues with the president's other proposals to cut funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and eliminating new Housing and Urban Development vouchers for homeless veterans.

"When you consider the Trump budget in its totality, it is a cruel document that cuts housing, food security, and key assistance that millions of veterans depend on," Takano said.

Another point of contention with Congress is the electronic health records system (EHR). Designed to combine a variety of health records programs across the VA while also giving the Pentagon a way to transfer in its health records, the roll out has been delayed several times.

The VA's proposed budget would give the EHR effort $2.6 billion - nearly doubling the amount from FY 2020.

A senior VA official said this $1.2 billion increase is "basically a transition budget" as the VA plans to expand the system in about 15 sites in 2021.

These increased funds would go towards building the IT infrastructure needed at some facilities and managing its rollout, among other things like maintenance, testing, deployment and operation, the budget brief said.

VA Officials are also requesting an additional $53 million to spend on women's health care, making the total gender-specific health care budget $626 million.

With the population of female veterans increasing by about 120,000 from 2014 to 2019, women are considered the VA's fastest-growing cohort. That means the VA needs to expand some women-specific services to meet growing demand, such as access to gynecologists. The 9% increase would let the VA provide more of those primary care services for women.

Details were thin on where the added funding would be spent, prompting criticism from one prominent veterans' group.

"We applaud this administration's focus on veterans and addressing the community's unique needs," Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a news release. "However, much is still unclear on how and where these funds would be allocated."

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press "1" to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

This article originally appeared on Military.com

More articles from Military.com:

Army recruiters hold a swearing-in ceremony for over 40 of Arkansas' Future Soldiers at the Arkansas State Capital Building. (U.S. Army/Amber Osei)

Though the Army has yet to actually set an official recruiting goal for this year, leaders are confident they're going to bring in more soldiers than last year.

Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command, told reporters on Wednesday that the Army was currently 2,226 contracts ahead of where it was in 2019.

"I will just tell you that this time last year we were in the red, and now we're in the green which is — the momentum's there and we see it continuing throughout the end of the year," Muth said, adding that the service hit recruiting numbers in February that haven't been hit during that month since 2014.

Read More
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

We are women veterans who have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Our service – as aviators, ship drivers, intelligence analysts, engineers, professors, and diplomats — spans decades. We have served in times of peace and war, separated from our families and loved ones. We are proud of our accomplishments, particularly as many were earned while immersed in a military culture that often ignores and demeans women's contributions. We are veterans.

Yet we recognize that as we grew as leaders over time, we often failed to challenge or even question this culture. It took decades for us to recognize that our individual successes came despite this culture and the damage it caused us and the women who follow in our footsteps. The easier course has always been to tolerate insulting, discriminatory, and harmful behavior toward women veterans and service members and to cling to the idea that 'a few bad apples' do not reflect the attitudes of the whole.

Recent allegations that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie allegedly sought to intentionally discredit a female veteran who reported a sexual assault at a VA medical center allow no such pretense.

Read More
In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL/WASHINGTON/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The United States and the Taliban will sign an agreement on Feb. 29 at the end of a week long period of violence reduction in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban said on Friday.

Read More
A U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk crew chief with the New Jersey National Guard's 1-171st General Support Aviation Battalion stands for a portrait at the Army Aviation Support Facility on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Feb. 3, 2020 (Air National Guard photo / Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

Active-duty service members, Reservists and National Guard members often serve side-by-side performing highly skilled and dangerous jobs, such as parachuting, explosives demolition and flight deck operations.

Reservists and Guard members are required to undergo the same training as specialized active-duty troops, and they face the same risks. Yet the extra incentive pay they receive for their work — called hazardous duty incentive pay — is merely a fraction of what their active-duty counterparts receive for performing the same job.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, D-3 of Moorestown, are partnering on legislation to correct the inequity. Known as the Guard and Reserve Hazard Duty Pay Equity Act, the bill seeks to standardize payment of hazardous duty incentive pay for all members of the armed services, including Reserve and National Guard components.

Read More
A screen grab from a YouTube video shows Marines being arrested during formation at Camp Pendleton in July, 2019. (Screen capture)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

Another Marine was hit with jail time and a bad-conduct discharge in connection with a slew of arrests made last summer over suspicions that members of a California-based infantry battalion were transporting people who'd crossed into the U.S. illegally.

Read More