VA and Congress Struggle to Reach Compromise on Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill

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Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Lawmakers are at odds with the Department of Veterans Affairs over a bill meant to tackle the high veteran suicide rate.

More than half of the roughly 17 veterans who commit suicide everyday are not under the Veterans Health Administration's care, so the VA and veterans advocacy groups are pushing for a "No Wrong Door" approach. This policy would give at-risk veterans more places to go to be connected with the resources they need by awarding grants to eligible nonprofits.

But Congress, the VA and the advocacy groups have not reached a compromise on which groups should qualify for VA grants to run veteran suicide prevention programs under the bill, H.R. 3495.

Another hearing will be held Thursday to discuss a compromise amendment put up by House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-California.

Related: The Whole Country Is Grappling with Suicide Epidemic, VA Secretary Says

"By allowing VA to responsibly partner with the community organizations already serving veterans," Takano said in a news release, "we can protect VA's expertise in providing clinical care and begin to reach the 60 percent of veterans not using VA health care. Through this public health approach, I believe we can reduce the overall number of veteran suicides."

Opposition to the bipartisan bill's current language has come from the American Federation of Government Employees, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a coalition of VA health provider interest groups, among other advocates. They sent letters to the committee in November voicing varying degrees of opposition to the language.

One group called the legislation "simply the wrong bill at the wrong time," while others were "concerned" it replicates a lane for care that was created under the Mission Act, a law passed last year that lets veterans go to private medical providers.

"VA has wraparound services that already exist and are funded," Ramsey Sulayman, VFW National Legislative Service associate director, said in a letter to the committee Nov. 20. "If the goal of H.R. 3495 is to 'catch' veterans in the community who are not using VA with a safety net of VA grant-supported community programs, the question becomes what to do with the cohort once they have been identified?"

He said the VFW believes the obvious answer is to connect those veterans to the VA or other health care options for which they are eligible, such as Tricare, Medicare or employer-sponsored insurance.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie does not share those concerns and opposed Takano's compromise amendment in a letter Wednesday.

"Efforts by the Congress to prohibit, disincentivize, or dissuade such care and exclude lesser-known groups from participating in this legislative solution will hinder VA and our partners from reaching those veterans we all agree need and deserve our best efforts," he wrote. "They should never find a 'locked door' or be shifted away when they come for help."

He said care for veterans had been "hindered by a disjointed and poorly-coordinated effort that often put the onus on the person in crisis to find the resources and support that was best suited to them, sometimes by trial and error and at the risk of their well-being."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the intent of the "No Wrong Door" policy and remove incorrect information about an upcoming markup.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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