Tester Pushes Defense Department on Military Suicide: ‘we have an obligation to the folks who serve in the military’

Report found that Department did not consistently screen transitioning servicemembers for suicide risk

Chairman Jon Tester pressed Department of Defense (DoD) senior leadership on the ongoing epidemic of military and veteran suicides at an Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing he convened on the Defense Health Program. Chairman Tester pushed Dr. David Smith, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, on a DoD Inspector General’s (IG) report from November 2021, which found that the Department did not consistently screen servicemembers transitioning from military to civilian life for suicide risk or arrange for uninterrupted mental health care.

“I think we have an obligation to the folks who serve in the military to make sure that transition [to civilian life] is done successfully,” Chairman Tester said. “There was a DoD IG report that came out in November 2021, you probably know what it said, it said that 70 percent of transitioning servicemembers are receiving a required physical examination upon separation and that exam doesn’t include any mental health screening…What’s the DoD doing to ensure that 100 percent of transitioning servicemembers receive the physical examination prior to their military separation, and while you’re on that, what are you doing to ensure that mental health is addressed in that separation?”

“The separation health physical exams have been a targeted focus,” replied Dr. Smith. “We’ve been working closely with the VA also in this, to make sure there is a warm handoff, if you will, for anyone that is known or recognized, whether it’s with that separation health physical exam or they are already in our care. Each of our components have been working to try to improve that.”

“I’ve been here for 15 years. We’ve been talking about mental health for 15 years on the VA Committee. These are folks that are coming out of the military and they’re killing themselves, okay?” Tester continued. “The mental health component is not a part of the evaluation that’s being done… Now it’s going to take two years, November of 2023, before it includes mental health screening. Now I understand that it takes a while for government to do stuff and it’s tough to get the ship turned around. But I will just say this: if mental health is a huge issue, and it is—most of you addressed it in your opening statement—why are we tolerating the mental health screening to take two years to get into the transition?”

The 2021 DoD IG report found that the Department did not establish and implement oversight of mental health assessments and suicide risk screening processes because the Defense Health Agency and Military Services did not include a mental health assessment and suicide risk screening as part of the Separation History and Physical Examination. It also found that only 70 percent of transitioning servicemembers are receiving the “required” separation health assessment upon separation from the military.

In 2018, then-President Trump issued Executive Order 13822, which required DoD, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Department of Homeland Security to submit a Joint Action Plan to provide seamless access to mental health treatment and suicide prevention resources for transitioning servicemembers in the year following discharge, separation, or retirement. In October 2020, Chairman Tester, who is also Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, led 30 colleagues in a letter pushing VA to follow through on authorities under the Executive Order to increase transitioning servicemembers’ and veterans’ access to mental health care.

Since taking over the gavel of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester has led hearings and roundtables focused on improving veterans’ mental health during COVID-19 and the implementation of the Hannon Act, increasing mental health collaboration efforts between VA and the Department of Defense, and bolstering suicide prevention and mental health efforts, especially during the servicemember-to-veteran transition.

Tester is continuing to work with VA, Veterans Service Organizations, and stakeholders to strengthen veterans’ mental health resources in the 117th Congress by spearheading bipartisan legislation such as the Revising and Expediting Actions for the Crisis Hotline (REACH) for Veterans Act and Post-9/11 Veterans’ Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2021, to strengthen life-saving tools like the Veterans Crisis Line, expand care, and support mental health research at VA.