Tester wants action plan to prevent veteran suicides

by Great Falls Tribune

Sen. Jon Tester on Wednesday told Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to create a plan that prevents suicides and addresses the serious mental health issues plaguing veterans in Montana and across the nation.

“The VA needs to take a more creative and aggressive approach to suicide prevention,” the Montana Democrat told Shulkin during a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, of which Tester is a ranking member. “We need an action plan on how the VA is addressing this crisis in Montana that engages local communities, providers, veterans and their family members. It’s on all of us to make sure that not one life is lost.”

According to a recent state study, from 2013 to 2016, there were 205 suicide deaths among Montana veterans for an average of 51 suicides each year. Suicide among veterans was higher than nonâ??veterans, according to the report from the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Helena veteran Matt Kuntz, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montana, testified before Tester’s committee and advocated for more mental health resources in rural areas, officials said.

“It is very hard for rural Montana communities to recruit and retain health care workers,” said Kuntz. “Our rural health care professionals have to walk a tightrope between finding enough patients to make a living and pay off their student loans, while not being overwhelmed by the workload.”

Tester asked VA officials about the impact that VA’s chronic workforce shortages are having on veterans seeking mental health care and VA’s efforts to reach out to vulnerable and hard-to-reach veterans.

“VA Montana is short about 20 mental health professionals right now,” he said. “The best-laid plans without the people and infrastructure below it won’t help veterans in rural areas. We need to make sure we can hire mental health professionals before we can make inroads with hard-to-reach veterans.”

Shulkin said the VA is struggling to fill vacancies for mental health professionals.

In August, President Donald Trump signed into law Tester’s bill that enables the VA to more quickly fill medical vacancies in places like Montana.

Tester has been working to expand rural and disabled veterans’ access to mental telehealth care by enabling more Montana veterans to utilize VA services out of the telehealth clinic in Salt Lake City.

Any veteran in crisis – or anyone concerned about a veteran in crisis – can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, send a text to 838255, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net at any time.