Tester, 19 U.S. senators, seek answers on VA’s meager suicide prevention efforts

Of the $6.2 million allocated to the Department of Veterans Affairs for suicide prevention during the last fiscal year, less than $60,000 was spent on the crisis, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Jon Tester, are now asking why.

Tester, the Ranking Member of the Senate VA Committee, joined 19 other senators last month in signing a letter to the VA. Despite an outward show to advance suicide prevention as a top priority, it said, the agency’s internal actions remain lacking.

The senators have called upon VA Secretary Robert Wilke to consult with experts in mental health outreach campaigns and to provide a full accounting of the $17.7 million budgeted by the VA for suicide prevention outreach.

“As suicide prevention is the VA’s highest clinical priority and the third highest priority in its 2018-2024 Strategic Plan, it is appalling that the VA is not conducting oversight of its own outreach efforts,” the letter stated. “Dysfunction at VA cannot be the excuse for the lack of a plan to execute suicide prevention outreach.”

According to the VA, roughly 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Preventing suicide is one of the department’s top priorities, and it has conducted national outreach since 2010 to raise awareness.

But the recent GAO report found that poor leadership within the VA resulted in a misuse of resources, along with a failed effort to reach at-risk veterans.

Of the $6.2 million allocated to fund outreach efforts on social media and keyword searches, the VA only spent $57,000 of that, the report stated. That’s less than 1 percent of its budget.

“Regardless of changes in leadership and organizational realignment, efforts to prevent suicide must remain at the forefront of the department’s care of veterans,” the letter said. “To allow critical outreach to lapse because of delays caused by staffing-related issues is a dereliction of VA’s responsibility to care for veterans, especially those at risk of suicide.”