Justin Miller of Minnesota should have been the last veteran to take his own life on the grounds of a medical care facility run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — the agency whose very mission is to help military men and women on the home front. Sadly, he was not.
Over the past week, three more veterans killed themselves on VA health care properties, according to an April 14 New York Times report. The parallels to Miller’s 2018 death are heart-wrenching. The 33-year-old had sought care at the Minneapolis Veterans Health Care System in early 2018. He was discharged after four days but never left the parking lot. He died there from a self-inflicted gun shot wound.
That “suicide at the VA” has happened repeatedly — raising troubling questions about whether it’s morphed into a tragic phenomenon — is an outrage that demands congressional follow-up. It has long been known that veterans face a high risk of suicide, with a rough average of 20 taking their own lives each day nationwide. Having multiple service members die by their own hand at the very place they sought help underscores the appalling lack of progress made in stemming this terrible epidemic.
The VA runs the nationwide system of hospitals and clinics that provide specialized care for returning soldiers. The agency’s leaders have been questioned repeatedly by members of Congress about the suicide crisis. Officials have vowed to improve. To be fair, this is a complex medical issue that will take time and resources to address.
At the same time, the agency is lagging in making pragmatic fixes necessary to respond adequately. The agency’s hiring process too often moves at glacial speed. Mental health postings in particular must be filled more swiftly. The agency isn’t moving fast enough to use technology to better serve those who can’t access VA facilities because they live in rural communities. And the agency’s leaders have resisted rather than embraced calls by veterans service organizations to research the use of medical marijuana for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or pain.
A congressional hearing focusing on these issues would not be plowing new ground. But one or more would continue to press the agency for action and hold leaders’ feet to the fire. Hearings could also provide a public service by broadening the inquiry beyond the VA. This agency shoulders the lead role when it comes to veterans’ mental health care, but it is not solely responsible. And it needs help.
The majority of veterans, about 70%, do not regularly rely on the VA for medical care, according to the Times report. That means hospitals, health care providers, insurers and state lawmakers in Minnesota and elsewhere must be part of the solution. One example of a ready-to-go-improvement in St. Paul: state legislation to better enforce “mental health parity,” which would ensure that mental health is covered the same as other diseases. Passing this could help reduce care costs, improve access to medications and reduce wait-times in Minnesota for those relying on private health insurance to see providers. Discussions about the bill haven’t included its benefits for veterans. This week, a poignant display of boots on the State Capitol’s steps — done to raise awareness of veteran suicides — drove home the message that lawmakers have an obligation to act.
The nation created new generations of veterans when it went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wounds created have yet to heal for many or, in some cases, are just becoming apparent. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) service organization is reporting an alarming 50% increase from 2018 to 2019 in the number of veterans it is referring to a national crisis line. IAVA responds to veterans’ requests for assistance with highly trained professionals and is pushing hard to detect those in need of the immediate help this crisis line provides. This sensitive surveillance is likely one of many factors driving the uptick the organization has detected, said IAVA’s Hannah Sinoway, but the numbers also indicate the ongoing unmet need for care.
Political leaders must continue to demand better from the VA but must also push for mental health care improvements across the nation’s entire health care system. Veterans who need help also shouldn’t hesitate to call the Veterans Crisis Line directly at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. “There is hope out there,” said IAVA’s Sinoway. “There is help out there.”
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