1/05/2019 — 

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), the Ranking Member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, are demanding answers from the Trump Administration about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) possible misuse of resources for suicide prevention outreach.  The senators wrote that the Trump Administration’s lack of oversight is “appalling” and noted “dysfunction at VA cannot be the excuse for the lack of a plan to execute suicide prevention outreach,” calling it a “dereliction of VA’s responsibility to veterans. 

In recent years, the VA has made preventing suicide a priority, starting with a major national outreach in 2010 to increase awareness.

However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a scathing report showing that poor leadership at the VA resulted in a misuse of resources and lackluster outreach efforts to at-risk veterans.

Of the $6.2 million allocated to paid suicide prevention outreach, such as billboards, digital ads, and sponsored keyword search results, the VA only spent $57,000 -- less than one percent of its budget.  GAO noted that in the first ten months of Fiscal Year 2018, the VA developed just 47 pieces of social media content, down from 339 in 2016.  And it failed to air any public service announcements on radio or TV for more than a year and did not develop any new paid advertising for 2018.

Reed, Tester, and 19 colleagues have sent a letter demanding a full accounting of the VA’s budget for suicide prevention and mental health outreach and urging the VA to consult with public and mental health outreach experts on how to better track the VA’s performance.

“As suicide prevention is the VA’s highest clinical priority and the third highest priority in its 2018-2024 Strategic Plan, it is appalling that the VA is not conducting oversight of its own outreach efforts,” the Senators wrote. “We request that you provide a full accounting of the $17.7 million the VA budgeted for its suicide prevention and mental health media outreach for Fiscal Year 2018. We also request that rather than rely strictly on metrics the VA develops internally, that you consult with experts with proven track records of successful public and mental health outreach campaigns with a particular emphasis on how those individuals measure success.”

The GAO report also found that the VA does not have trackable goals or targets to evaluate the effectiveness of its suicide prevention efforts and noted that a lack of consistent or permanent leadership hampered the VA’s suicide prevention efforts and outreach.

“Our veterans have made incredible sacrifices and we need to keep our promises to them.  Suicide is a preventable tragedy and the VA needs to provide timely, effective help to those in need.  It is appalling that dysfunction within the Trump Administration has resulted in a lack of leadership, oversight, and outreach to veterans in crisis,” said Senator Reed, who cosponsored the bipartisan Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which was passed in 2015 to expand mental health resources and accountability at the VA.

“We must do everything we can to improve access to high-quality mental health services for our nation’s veterans.  This must be a wakeup call that leads to improved outreach and oversight.  Help is available, and the VA needs to do a better job of using the resources that Congress has provided to reach out and raise awareness.  Ultimately, this is about saving lives,” said Reed.

Veterans in crisis — or people concerned about a veteran in crisis — may access free, confidential support 24/7 by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Pressing 1.  Or send a text message to 838255.  Or chat online.

Reed and Tester were joined on the letter by U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Doug Jones (D-AL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

Text of the letter follows:

Dear Mr. Secretary,

We are concerned that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is failing to use every resource at its disposal to prevent the staggering number of suicides among veterans.  Veterans across this nation deserve better.

This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that found that leadership vacancies contributed to the decline of VA’s paid suicide prevention media outreach activities. As suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority and the third highest priority in its 2018-2024 Strategic Plan, it is appalling that the VA’s is not conducting oversight of its own outreach efforts.

GAO found that of the $6.2 million obligated in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 for suicide prevention paid media efforts, as of September, VHA had spent just $57,000.  Dysfunction at VA cannot be the excuse for the lack of a plan to execute suicide prevention outreach.  Regardless of changes in leadership and organizational realignment, efforts to prevent suicide must remain at the forefront of the Department’s care of veterans.  To allow critical outreach to lapse because of delays caused by staffing-related issues is a dereliction of VA’s responsibility to care for veterans – especially those at-risk of suicide.

Further, GAO found that VA lacks targets to assist in evaluating the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts.  It appears that while VA outwardly advances suicide prevention as its highest goal, its internal actions are lacking.  An example of this is the Department’s failure to set goals for the majority of the metrics it uses to evaluate the effectiveness of its suicide prevention media outreach campaign.  Without such information, VA does not know whether its campaign is working.  For example, GAO indicated that during VA’s 2016 Suicide Prevention Month there was an eight percent uptick in the number of visits to the Veterans’ Crisis Hotline, however, the report failed to evaluate if the eight percent met expectations. Given the “focus” on suicide prevention efforts in recent years, it is astonishing that VA has not established basic targets to evaluate if its campaigns are effective. We request that rather than rely strictly on metrics VA develops internally, that you consult with experts with proven track records of successful public and mental  health outreach campaigns with a particular emphasis on how those individuals measure success.

Recommendations in the report included an established approach for VA to oversee its suicide prevention media outreach campaign that incorporates a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities and establishes goals for its metrics to improve evaluation efforts.  While we understand you have agreed with these reasonable attempts to get suicide prevention efforts on track, we further request that VA provide a full accounting of the $17.7 million VA budgeted for its suicide prevention and mental health media outreach for FY 2018 so that Congress can be assured that all funding for this effort is being utilized appropriately.

Every veteran suicide is a tragic outcome and outreach is key to making progress against this American public health crisis.  We look forward to your response and commitment to keeping suicide prevention as VA’s highest clinical priority.

Sincerely,