Veterans Affairs Fails to Curb Suicide Epidemic

June 18, 2013

Since the 1990s, veterans, policymakers and health care professionals have expressed concern over veterans' untreated mental health challenges and high suicide rates. Many veterans experience varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and traumatic brain injury (TBI). These conditions produce patients who are inherently reluctant to seek treatment, says Kyle Buckley, a graduate student fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a veteran of the U.S. Army.

Veterans represent only 7 percent of the population, but 22 percent of all reported suicides. The quality of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) care for suicide risks often surpasses private hospitals. However, 61 percent of veterans are not enrolled in the VHA, and therefore do not receive treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), attempts to measure veteran suicide rates at a national level, but receives data from less than half of the states.

  • Despite VA and CDC efforts, incomplete and erroneous state suicide reporting to the NVDRS contribute to an error rate in excess of 23 percent for the best available data.
  • Despite increases in preventive measures, there were nearly 75,000 reported suicide attempts over the past five years, and an additional estimated 57,000 successful suicides.
  • The VA website hosts a search engine where veterans can input their area code to find community-based outpatient clinics (CBOCs) or vet centers, but nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of VA outpatient clinic staffs do not have a mental health clinician.

Short-Term Policy Solution: Increase VA Cooperation with Veterans Service Organizations.

  • Multiple reports by the Congressional Research Service claim that there is a clear need for increased cooperation between the VA and Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs).
  • Partnering with VSOs would allow hotline operators to schedule local follow-up appointments days after a crisis, not months. Such cooperative efforts would also allow veterans access to free treatment during that first critical month, when most suicides occur.

Long-Term Policy Solution: Health Savings Accounts.

  • A "GI Health Care Bill" could provide eligible veterans with the resources to purchase a high-deductible health insurance policy plus a Health Savings Account (HSA).
  • Allowing veterans to find care within easy reach would significantly increase their access to care and would also increase the number of veterans who actively seek care.

The VA should encourage community-based support networks by partnering with the myriad Veteran Service Organizations and private clinicians. These strategies have the potential to vastly increase access to care and outreach; doing so could reduce the alarming rates of veteran suicide.

Source: Kyle Buckley, "Veterans Affairs Fails to Curb Suicide Epidemic," National Center for Policy Analysis, June 2013.

 

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