In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Max Rose (D-NY), an Army combat veteran, introduced this bill to address the troubling trend of veterans dying by suicide on Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) campuses:
“It’s imperative that we receive not only basic information from the VA, but substantive data on this rising trend of veterans committing suicide at VA facilities. Getting this data more quickly and thoroughly would guide Congress’ efforts in understanding this crisis, and preventing these tragedies. We must ensure all veterans have the services they need when they need them, plain and simple.”
At a bipartisan press conference on veteran suicide on April 29, 2019, Rep. Rose added:
“Every veteran struggling with the mental and physical scars of war who die by suicide is another casualty of combat—so we need to put the same attention and resources towards keeping our soldiers safe on the battlefield as we do supporting them when they come home. And as we were painfully reminded just this month, when three veterans died by suicide on VA campuses in the span of five days, and a fourth just today in Cleveland, Ohio—we all need to do more. The VA, Congress, all of us. So as a vet and a Member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I introduced a bill that is a key first step in addressing this crisis—the FIGHT Veterans Suicide Act. This would require the VA to report critical information on attempted or completed suicides on VA campuses directly to Congress.”
American Veterans (AMVETS) supports this bill. Its National Executive Director, Joe Chenelly, says:
“AMVETS is pleased that Congressman Rose has stepped up to the plate as we search for solutions to this national crisis. Unfortunately, as we’ve stated before, we have reached an epidemic of crisis proportions. We have veterans committing suicides in VA parking lots, shooting themselves in facilities, and lighting themselves on fire in clinic doorways. While we remain unaware of just how many veterans take their lives at VA medical centers, there is one thing that is apparent: this is some form of a last resort protest regarding the VA system failing them. The more data we can gather to identify trends and determine where we are falling short, the better. We look forward to working with Congressman Rose to get this legislation passed and enforced, so that we can start getting answers.”
In other comments, Chenelly elaborated on his belief that suicides at VA facilities are a form of outcry, saying these suicides “appear to be protests of last resort where health care systems, treatment programs, and the underlying cultures of the responsible federal agencies have failed them."
Eric Caine, director of the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention at the University of Rochester, concurs:
“These suicides are sentinel events. It’s very important for the VA to recognize that the place of a suicide can have great meaning. There is a real moral imperative and invitation here to take a close inspection of the quality of services at the facility level.”
At a House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health hearing, Dr. Keita Franklin, National Director of Suicide Prevention for the VA, expressed the VA’s support for this bill. Dr. Franklin said, “This would require the VA to submit notification of veterans suicide deaths or suicide attempts that occur on VA facilities to Congress within seven days of the event. VA supports this legislation.” However, when this bill was initially introduced, a VA spokesperson also noted that the VA already notifies certain persons of suicide attempts at VA facilities:
"The [VA] is transparent about suicides and suicide attempts...VA already notifies the staff directors of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs of any veteran suicide on VA property and strives to do so within 24 hours of a confirmed incident."
The Trump administration has made efforts to address veteran suicide. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has repeatedly promised to keep suicide prevention as VA’s top priority. In March 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order, the National Initiative to Empower Veterans and End Veteran Suicide, instructing VA officials to develop a strategy to aggressively tackle the issue of veteran suicide. However, AMVETS contended the White House initiative would take “at least a year to establish and launch into action,” and called instead for a multi-agency investigation into what it terms a “suicide epidemic among veterans and service members.” AMVETS called for the inspectors general of the VA, Dept. of Defense (DOD), and Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) to immediately launch a joint investigation following the April 2019 deaths at VA facilities.
This bill passed the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee by a unanimous voice vote with the support of 10 bipartisan cosponsors, including eight Democrats and two Republicans.
This bill has the support of American Veterans (AMVETS) and the Reserve Officers Association of the United States (ROA).
Of Note: Over the course of five days in April, three veterans died by suicide at VA campuses: two in Georgia and one in Austin, Texas, where a veteran shot himself at a VA clinic while seeking help. According to the Military Times, 23 veterans have killed themselves in VA medical centers over the 18-month period from January 2018 to April 2019. Due to these incidents, plus the fact that 20 veterans (of whom 14 are outside the VA system) have committed suicide daily for about a decade, pressure has been mounting on Congress and the VA to address veterans’ suicide rates. In a statement after the Georgia suicides, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) said:
“The loss of even one veteran to suicide is unacceptable and devastating. Preventing veteran suicide remains a top priority for our committee, and I will continue working with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to ensure the VA has the resources it needs and the accountability in place to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent veteran suicide.”
The VA has been tracking suicides at VA facilities since 2017. Since the VA began tracking this, there have been over 260 suicide attempts, 240 of which were interrupted. Currently, whenever an unexpected death occurs at a VA facility, the VA conducts a comprehensive review of the case to see if changes and policies and procedures are warranted. However, while the VA is responsible for yearly suicide and suicide attempt reporting, it isn’t currently required to report on attempts or deaths that occur on VA properties.
According to Rep. Rose’s office, Congress has found that VA isn’t always forthcoming with timely information around suicide attempts at VA facilities. Rep. Rose’s office contends that the “key data points which this legislation requires from VA would help Congress fully understand the scope of [the veteran suicide] crisis to better serve our veterans in need.”
The Washington Post reports that veterans are 1.5 times as likely as civilians to die by suicide, after adjusting for age and gender. The VA reports that in 2016, the veteran suicide rate was 26.1 per 100,000, versus 17.4 per 100,000 for non-veteran adults.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / vadimguzhva)