Beginning in less than 90 days, new veterans will become eligible for VA mental health care as soon as they leave military service. More than 250,000 service members transition out of the military each year. On Tuesday, the President signed an executive order that gives the DoD, Department of Homeland Security, and VA just 60 days to develop a plan for handling the influx of new patients into the system.
“As service members transition to veteran status, they face higher risk of suicide and mental health difficulties,” said VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD. “During this critical phase, many transitioning service members may not qualify for enrollment in health care. The focus of this executive order is to coordinate federal assets to close that gap.”
How the VA will meet the increased demand remains to be seen. As an executive order, the mandate does not come with additional funds. And in October testimony, Secretary Shulkin admitted that the VA already was having difficulty hiring and training enough mental health care providers to meet existing demand.
The executive order is focused on the 60% of new veterans who are not immediately eligible for VA health care benefits. According to Secretary Shulkin, in the first year postseparation, often before VA eligibility is determined, these new veterans are especially at risk for suicide. “That 12-month period after you leave service is the highest risk for suicide,” Secretary Shulkin noted. Veterans during that period face almost one and a half to 2 times the risk of suicide in that first 12 months when they leave the service.
The VA outlined 3 approaches that would be implemented to meet the mental health needs for transitioning veterans. Peer counseling will play a particularly important role in the new services. First, the VA will expand its peer community outreach and group session offers and the VA whole health patient-centered care initiative. Currently, the VA Whole Health program is in 18 facilities, but it will be expanded to all facilities. The program focuses on wellness and establishing individual health goals.
In addition, the DoD “Be There Peer Support Call and Outreach Center” services will be expanded. The program will begin to offer peer support for veterans in the year following separation from the uniformed service.
Most consequently, the executive order will expand the DoD Military OneSource, which currently provides free mental health care counseling to active-duty service members and their families. The program will be expanded to include recently transitioned veterans as well. And according to a report in Military Times, Military OneSource care also may be available to the families of new veterans.