Tester, Colleagues Urge VA to Prioritize Veterans’ Mental Health Amid Pandemic

“The COVID-19 impact on mental health will be long-term, and immediate action as well as a long-term response plan are necessary to combat the mental health implications of this crisis”

U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, joined 23 colleagues today in urging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to develop and implement comprehensive mental health care plans to ensure veterans’ well-being during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The stress, uncertainty, and isolation associated with the pandemic—all risk factors for suicide in a population where an estimated 17 veterans tragically die by suicide a day—will further increase demand for mental health care among our veteran population, necessitating a comprehensive plan to meet that need,” the Senators wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

The Senators urged VA to utilize and expand the availability of telehealth services, including working with broadband providers to ensure veterans have internet access, assessing the efficacy of telehealth mental health services for this vulnerable population, and conducting public outreach to reach veterans in need of these services.

The letter also stressed the need for the agency to anticipate an increased use of existing services, urging VA to hire and adequately train additional mental health providers. Emphasizing the importance of monitoring for a possible increase in veteran suicides, the Senators called on the VA to ensure it has the capacity to track the data and the plans in place to address such spikes.

Tester has led the charge to expand access to telehealth resources during the coronavirus outbreak. He successfully secured $2.15 billion to bolster telehealth capabilities through increased telework and call center capabilities in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Earlier this month, he called on VA to implement an authority under the stimulus package that allows VA to partner with telecommunications companies to subsidize fixed and mobile internet services for veterans who need telemental health care.

A copy of the letter can be found HERE.