Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin, MD, testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, promising to tackle the epidemic of suicide and to continue the process to improve the Veterans Choice Act. Dr. Shulkin pledged to begin providing some mental health care service to veterans with other than honorable (OTH) discharges. “We know the rate of death by suicide among veterans who do not use VA care is increasing at a greater rate than veterans who use VA care,” Shulkin told the panel. “This is a national emergency that requires bold action. We must and we will do all that we can to help former service members who may be at risk. When we say even 1 veteran suicide is 1 too many, we mean it.”
The VA estimates that there are more than 500,000 former service members with OTH discharges. Previously, these veterans were not eligible for VA health benefits. As part of the proposal, former OTH service members would be able to seek treatment at a VA emergency department, Vet Center, or Veterans Crisis Line.
“I appreciate Secretary Shulkin taking steps to ensure veterans in crisis with OTH discharges have access to mental health services,” Phil Roe, MD (R-Tenn), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a written response. “With that said, this must be done in a fair, transparent way that ensures no veteran, especially those who have honorably served, are being skipped over for the care they need. I look forward to continuing this conversation with Secretary Shulkin.”
In addition, Dr. Shulkin revealed that 5.5 million appointments have been made through the Veterans Choice Act and only 5,000 use community care exclusively. The bulk of veterans access both Veterans Choice and VA health care services. The Choice Act is set to expire in less than 6 months on August 7, 2017, if it does not receive congressional reapproval.
To modernize and consolidating the community care portion of the Veterans Choice Act, Shulkin outlined 7 steps:
- High performance integrated network, including VA, other federal health care, and community providers;
- Increase choice for all veterans, starting with those with service-connected health needs;
- Help veterans get care closer to their homes;
- Optimize and coordinate veterans’ care with other insurance providers;
- Maintain affordability for lowest income veterans;
- Assist in care coordination for veterans with multiple care providers; and
- Apply industry standards for quality and affordability to the program.