Congress passes veteran mental health and suicide prevention bills on eve of Veterans Day

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By Connecting Vets

The evening before Veterans Day, the Senate passed more legislation aimed at improving mental health care and services for veterans and troops, sending them to the president's desk for final approval.

The package of bills, the Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care and Treatment (COMPACT) Act includes nine parts intended to help prevent veteran suicides

The latest VA veteran suicide data report from 2019 found that on average, about 17 veterans died by suicide per day in 2017. That number has remained stagnate or worsened in recent years despite increased spending and programs aimed at helping. The data typically is delayed by about two years, making it difficult to determine whether efforts have made a significant difference year over year. More than 6,000 veterans died by suicide each year from 2008 to 2017, according to previous reports.

Since that data lags behind by about two years, advocates and lawmakers worry they won't have a concrete grasp of how the pandemic has affected suicide rates for veterans -- but they agree that the isolation and stress caused by the turmoil spreading alongside the virus likely won't improve things and that veterans, troops and their families need more help now than ever.

Specifically, the COMPACT Act would:

  • Provide free crisis care for any veteran with emergency suicide symptoms;
  • Create a pilot program between VA and designated family or friends of veterans to share information on benefits and assistance;
  • Require an annual report on VA's Solid Start program;
  • Establish an education program for veteran families and caregivers on mental health concerns;
  • Create an interagency task force on outdoor recreation for veterans;
  • Establish a policy where veterans who have not had contact with VA in two or more years are encouraged to come in for an exam to continue eligibility for emergency care not linked to their service-connected disabilities; 
  • Require annual VA police de-escalation and crisis intervention training;
  • Require a study of VA programs providing assistance to women veterans who are homeless;
  • Provide a report on locations where women veterans are using VA health care.

The package of bills that became the COMPACT Act was part of an agreement between House and Senate Veterans Affairs leaders to pass major veteran mental health and suicide prevention legislation before the end of the year and the end of this Congressional session. 

Senators, advocates warn VA isn't following Trump executive order on veteran suicide prevention

The president signed the bill into law on Oct. 17, a little less than a month after Congress passed the Cmdr. John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act out of both chambers unanimously. That bill has been one of Veterans Affairs lawmakers' top priorities and originated in the Senate.

The COMPACT Act originated in the House and passed the Senate Tuesday evening just ahead of the national holiday. 

“As long as 17 veterans, National Guard members, and reservists die by suicide each day, our work will not be done—but today we made real progress in the fight to reduce veteran suicide,” House Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, said in a statement Tuesday. "Our bipartisan, bicameral bill helps address gaps in prevention and care for veterans who are at heightened risk for suicide like women veterans, those who recently separated from military service, and veterans who haven’t used VA healthcare recently. It also includes my bill, the Veterans ACCESS Act, to ensure that no veteran experiencing an emergency mental health crisis has to worry about cost when seeking the care they need. "

Ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, who plans to retire at the end of this session, said the bill package "builds on the provisions" of the Hannon Act "to ensure veterans and their families receive the support, care and services they need to live full, healthy lives following their brave service." 

For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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