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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Tester Bill Takes Aim At Veteran Suicides

Senator Jon Tester (D) - Montana
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Senator Jon Tester.

Nationwide, military veterans commit suicide at the rate of 17 a day, and despite many efforts to bring it down, the rate has remained constant for years.

On Wednesday, Montana Sen. Jon Tester has introduced a bill aimed at making an impact, by containing numerous directives for the U.S. Veterans Administration.

"This bill makes sure that veterans can access mental health care no matter where they live, so that no veteran falls through the cracks," Tester says.

Tester wants to create grants for organizations outside the VA that help veterans with mental health and suicide prevention. Of the 17 vets a day who take their own lives, it's estimated that 14 are not connected to care in the VA system.

Tester also wants grants to make telehealth services available in non-traditional settings, so that vets do things like connect via video link with a psychologist in a private space in a public library, American Legion post or other location. 

"That's something that I didn't think of, it's not something the VA thought of, it's something some veterans on the ground, I believe up in Eureka thought of. I think it's a hell of a good idea. A lot of these American Legion posts can't afford to do it, but we can bring in a whole new swath of veterans who, if they have a challenge, can whip in and hopefully get it taken care of. That's the goal."

There's another part of the bill that Heather Kelly particularly likes. Kelly is the director of Military and Veterans Health Policy at the American Psychological Association.

"We see a spike in deaths by suicide immediately after a service member transitions, being either active duty or reserve regard, into the veterans status and back into the civilian world -- a three month spike, but also really it's a really high period for even a year or two -- deaths by suicide go dramatically up.," Kelly said.

The bill would give people longer access to VA care after they separate from the military, so they'd be able to get help for mental health problems on the VA's dime. And the VA would be required to check in on recently-separated vets and, Kelly says, “coach them into care.”

And Kelly says her organization helped draft language in the bill to give the VA fast track authority to hire psychologists and chaplains, the same as it currently has for psychiatrists, and it would create scholarships for students who commit to work in vet centers after they graduate. (Editor's note: An updated draft of the bill does not include fast track hiring authority for chaplains). 

"There are far too many staff vacancies right now for psychologists, for psychiatrists in the VA," said Kelly "So frankly, anything, including both of these components that has a financial incentive for working at the VA, for staying at the VA, for paying off student loans is going to be important."

Neither Kelly nor Sen. Tester could offer a specific number of scholarships they think would lead to a significant decrease in vacancies at the VA, but Tester says, "if we get overutilization of these scholarships, I think that's a really good sign."

The total cost of the new programs and services Tester is asking for in his bill won't be estimated until the Congressional Budget Office has a chance to score it, something he says will take about a month. He says he expects it to be funded within the overall VA budget. President Trump has called for a 9.5 percent increase in VA spending in 2020, up to a total of $216 billion. That's more than the President is asking for the Army, Navy or Air Force. 

"Taking care of our veterans is a cost of war," Tester said, "and we have got a huge suicide problem, mental health problem with our veterans who have returned after, well, nearly 20 years of war."

Tester has secured a Republican co-sponsor for his bill, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, which should help its chances. He says he's optimistic that if the current Congress passes any mental health bills, his will be the one.

The bill is named the Commander John Scott Hannon Veteran Mental Health Improvement Act in honor of a highly decorated Navy SEAL from Helena who suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, and took his own life last year.

Review the bill here.(The bill draft linked to here, on 3/14/19 is updated since our story was first posted on 3/13/19)

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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