Tester, Moran Take Bipartisan Action to Improve Veterans Crisis Line

Following damning watchdog reports, Committee leaders introduce legislation to strengthen training, guidance, and processes for responding to veterans in crisis

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) are teaming up to introduce a bipartisan bill aimed at improving the Veterans Crisis Line’s (VCL) staff training, management, and response to high-risk veteran callers at risk of suicide.

The Senators’ Revising and Expediting Actions for the Crisis Hotline (REACH) for Veterans Act would implement key recommendations made by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in April 2021 and November 2020 following responder missteps at the VCL that resulted in a veteran homicide and a veteran suicide.

“We’ve got to do more to make sure no veteran who reaches out for life-saving assistance through the Veterans Crisis Line falls through the cracks,” said Chairman Tester. “Our bipartisan bill requires VA to address dangerous gaps in the system, fully train responders on how to properly assess risks and take action with high-risk callers, and help VA successfully transition to the 3-digit, national suicide prevention hotline. This emergency service is often a last resort for many veterans in crisis, especially in rural states like Montana, and ensuring its effectiveness must remain our top priority.”

“While Congress has made substantial improvements to the Veterans Crisis Line in recent years, deficiencies remain that must be addressed to ensure every veteran receives the care they deserve when in crisis,” said Ranking Member Moran. “This legislation directs the VA to implement key recommendations made by the Office of Inspector General including improved Veterans Crisis Line staff training, an extended safety planning pilot program, and a smooth transition to 9-8-8 as the national 3-digit suicide crisis hotline for veterans.”

Specifically, the bill would require an outside evaluation of VCL’s current training curriculum, direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to issue re-training guidance for call responders, increase the quality review and management over VCL calls and processes, improve responder guidance for high-risk callers, and establish pilot programs to improve VCL services. It would also facilitate the transition to 9-8-8 as the national suicide prevention hotline, with more guidance from Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and stakeholders.

Numerous veterans’ advocates applauded the Senators’ bipartisan effort to strengthen VCL staff training and guidance for responding to high-risk veteran callers.

“The Veterans Crisis Line remains an indispensable tool, having helped hundreds of thousands of veterans access mental health services and mitigate suicide risk,” said Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Commander Stephen “Butch” Whitehead. “DAV supports the REACH for Veterans Act which would improve the VCL by bolstering its effectiveness through systematic review, training and ongoing monitoring. Veterans deserve a safe, accessible means of seeking immediate help in times of crisis, and we thank Senators Tester and Moran for the legislation and their steadfast commitment to fighting veteran suicide.”

“Veteran suicide prevention must be a national priority,” said Laurel Stine, J.D., Senior Vice President, Public Policy of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). “AFSP applauds Senators Jon Tester and Jerry Moran for ensuring the Veterans Crisis Line has the capacity to respond to callers as effectively as possible. When Veterans call 9-8-8 they should receive quick, appropriate crisis care, and we urge Congress to pass the Revising and Expediting Actions for the Crisis Hotline (REACH) for Veterans Act.”

“Addressing veteran mental health through preventative action is vital to decreasing the veteran suicide rate,” said Chanin Nuntavong, Executive Director of The American Legion. “The Veteran Crisis Line serves as a tool for suicidal veterans to get the mental health assistance they need. Unfortunately, bureaucratic inadequacies have made the VCL ineffective at times. This is why The American Legion supports the REACH for Veterans Act. This legislation strengthens the transition to 9-8-8 as the national suicide prevention hotline by requiring VA to issue re-training guidance for VCL responders and mandating VA get feedback from VSOs on VA outreach during the move to 9-8-8.”

“In 2007, VA established the Veterans Crisis Line,” said Tammy Barlet, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Legislative Service Associate Director. “This hotline provides 24/7 confidential call, text, or chat crisis intervention and suicide prevention for veterans, service members, National Guard and Reserve, and their families. Eliminating suicide among our nation’s veterans is a priority of the VFW, which is why we support S. 2282, Reach for Veterans Act of 2021. This bill would provide oversight of VCL staffing, training, and processes, an extended safety planning pilot program, and research funding for improvements. In addition, the VFW looks forward to working with Congress and VA in the rollout of the upcoming national 3-digit suicide and mental health crisis hotline––9-8-8.”

“The ability to reach help quickly is critical for veterans experiencing a crisis,” said Heather Ansley, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Associate Executive Director of Government Relations. “Senator Tester and Senator Moran’s Revising and Expediting Actions for the Crisis Hotline (REACH) for Veterans Act would help ensure VA’s primary conduit for veterans to reach help is maintained and operating at the highest rate of efficiency.”

“The Veterans Crisis Line is one of our country’s most essential tools to stopping veteran suicide,” said Matt Kuntz, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Montana (NAMI) Montana. “It’s an overwhelming and difficult mission that relies on disparate and ever-changing community crisis resources around the country. We are grateful to Senators Tester and Moran for leading the effort to improve and strengthen this life-saving resource.”

Text of the REACH for Veterans Act can be found HERE.