Wall Street Journal | by Ben Kesling | December 24, 2019
The rising suicide rate among U.S. military veterans will be a top concern among members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in the New Year, the panel’s incoming chairman said, with a focus on new legislation and added resources.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), who is slated to take over as Senate VA chairman, said he also will demand more accountability and transparency from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates one of the country’s biggest health-care systems, and will try to maintain bipartisanship in a committee known for working across the aisle despite a divided Washington.
Curbing suicide among veterans will be a foremost pursuit, Mr. Moran said, laying out his priorities in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“We have planned a markup for a bill, for several bills really, in regard to mental health and suicide prevention in January,” he said. “It will be our initial legislative effort.”
Suicide rates among both troops and veterans have continued to rise—as has the rate among the general population, although well below that of military service members.
Studies also have shown that many troops enter the military with forms of trauma that can affect them while in the service and beyond.
Mr. Moran said legislation he introduced with the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, will get input from other members of the committee to create a comprehensive mental-health treatment package for veterans.
The two lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this year to bolster VA hiring of mental-health workers, to streamline the transition process for troops leaving active-duty service and to invest in alternative treatments.
The VA recently has taken what it calls a public-health approach to suicide, providing resources that seek to help veterans find meaning after service, experimenting with nontraditional treatments and supporting events like unit reunions.
“I’m confident Sen. Moran will continue his steadfast advocacy for this country’s veterans,” said the committee’s ranking member, Mr. Tester, in a statement. “I look forward to hitting the ground running together on a number of legislative priorities.”
Mr. Moran is expected to be appointed by the GOP majority as chairman of the committee in January, taking over from Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), who is retiring from the Senate.
Mr. Moran has served on the committee for eight years, helping draft legislation that changed the way the VA delivers health care to veterans, including the availability of private-sector care, though he said he doesn’t want radical changes.
“I am not for privatizing the VA,” Mr. Moran said, adding that he speaks to many veterans in Kansas who want their care from the VA, so they can be treated by people who understand veterans and are surrounded by familiar people when they get care.
He also said he doesn’t favor a “full choice” policy, allowing veterans to bypass the department completely to get care in the private sector. He wants the VA to remain what is known as the coordinator of care, or the place where veterans typically go through to arrange treatment, whether within the department or with private providers. But he is willing to consider all options, he said.
Mr. Moran praised the current VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, as being open and receptive to conversations with lawmakers and for directing the VA to respond to congressional requests, but said he plans to push to get more complete information from the VA on veterans’ matters in a more timely way.
“Trying to make sure that we’re getting the full story has been a challenge continually,” Mr. Moran said of the department. “There is some level of skepticism: Do I get the full story?”
As part of the effort to hold the VA more accountable, Mr. Moran said he plans hearings that will feature the VA’s inspector general, who he said plays a key role in digging into problems at the department.
“I’m generally a fan of inspector generals, department wide, across the government,” he said.
Agency officials promised to work with Mr. Moran “to build on the unprecedented series of reforms to improve care and benefits for America’s Veterans that have taken place under President Trump,” said VA spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci. She added that the VA wants to focus on suicide prevention in part by offering direct grants to community organizations. The VA didn’t respond to Mr. Moran’s remarks about the need for more complete information from the department.
Mr. Moran said he also wants to look for ways to ease the transition of active-duty troops to veteran status, integrating electronic medical records and ensuring that troops move into the VA system when they take off the uniform. Currently only about half of veterans use the VA system, according to the agency.
Smoothing the transition process could broaden the delivery of mental-health care, potentially opening the way to a better understanding of suicide not only among veterans but in society at large, he said.
“What we do and what we learn within the VA is something that can benefit others who aren’t necessarily veterans,” Mr. Moran said. “Suicide is a national problem that doesn’t have barriers, it’s not just one segment of the population.”
To read the full article in The Wall Street Journal, click here.
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