Tester Invites VA’s Suicide Prevention Commission to Montana

Senator Doubles Down on Effort to Curb Veteran Suicide, Bolster Mental Health Care

(U.S. Senate) – Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester is inviting the VA’s commission on suicide prevention to learn first-hand about the unique challenges Montana veterans face in accessing mental health care.

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, Tester invited the VA’s Creating Options for Veterans’ Expedited Recovery (COVER) Commission to visit Montana VA facilities. The COVER Commission is tasked with assessing the VA’s mental health treatment options and identifying new, innovative, and successful mental health treatments that can be integrated into the VA.

“While I agree that it is vitally important to celebrate successes in suicide prevention and mental health wellness, I believe it is premature for the VA to proclaim significant progress on this issue,” wrote Tester. “Moving forward, I encourage the VA to continue working collaboratively with other federal, state and local stakeholders on the Governor’s Challenge and other initiatives, and request that the COVER Commission come to Montana to get a first-hand perspective of the daunting mental health challenges in frontier areas.”

While rural and frontier states continue to struggle with very high rates of veteran suicide, Tester notes that the COVER Commission has thus far visited only urban and suburban VA facilities.

“Rural and frontier veterans often lack access to some of the complementary and integrative health services that countless veterans across the country have credited for their recovery. These veterans often live many miles away from the nearest medical facility, whether VA-operated or otherwise, and many lack broadband access to effectively utilize VA’s pioneering telehealth programs. In order to get a better appreciation for the full range of VA services, I invite the Commission to visit facilities in Montana and meet with local veterans and advocates who navigate these barriers on a daily basis,” Tester continued.

Tester has been a relentless advocate on veterans’ mental health and suicide prevention. He helped appoint Helena veteran and mental health advocate Matt Kuntz to the COVER Commission to make sure rural veterans have a voice in the VA’s suicide prevention efforts.

As Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester invited Kuntz to testify before the Committee in 2017 on how the VA can improve Montana and rural veterans’ access to mental health care. Kuntz has provided feedback on several Tester-authored bills to allow the VA to hire additional mental health professionals and cut red tape to let veterans access mental health care closer to home.

In December, Tester led 20 Senators in demanding answers on reports that the VA had misusing its resources for suicide prevention outreach like promoted social media posts and sponsored keyword search results. In a January address to the Montana State Legislature, Tester urged state lawmakers to proactively work together to find solutions for Montana veterans struggling with accessing mental health care.

In September, Tester urged Wilkie to deploy more mental health care and suicide prevention resources to vulnerable veteran populations, like rural, women, and younger veterans. He also pressed Wilkie to fully staff VA medical facilities and Vet Centers with the appropriate mental health staff and expedite the expansion of mental telehealth care to better reach rural veterans.

Tester’s letter to Wilkie can be read online HERE.