WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs spent only a fraction of the money allocated to the agency for suicide prevention outreach according to a recent oversight report. Also, some veterans with disabilities have been arbitrarily downgraded or cut from caregiver programs, according to recent media investigations.
Members of both the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs grilled VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Jr. about the details of these critical findings during a joint hearing on Wednesday.
On average 20 veterans commit suicide every day, yet a Government Accountability Office report released on Monday found that outreach efforts at the VA related to suicide prevention waned in 2017 and 2018.
Of $6.2 million allocated to paid advertising for suicide prevention, the VA spent only $57,000 as of September 2018, despite the department’s assertion that suicide prevention was its top clinical priority.
The report, however, clarified that in total the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is projected to have spent a total of $1.5 million on paid media in fiscal year 2018, although that’s still far short of the funds available to the agency.
The office attributed the department’s failure to spend its money appropriately to leadership turnover and reorganization.
Specifically, the GAO noted that the reason the VHA had not spent the leftover monies for paid media aimed at suicide prevention was that “changes in leadership and organizational realignment of the program” delayed approval of a formal plan for the campaign.
The report also noted that while the VHA maintains metrics for its campaign, such as how many people are estimated to have seen its anti-suicide messages, it does not have specific targets for them.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) zeroed in on this particular finding, and asked the Secretary how he measures his success in addressing veteran suicide.
“How do you know how you’re doing against that priority [suicide prevention]? What are your goals?”
Wilkie clarified that 14 of the 20 suicides that happen each day happen among veterans are outside of the VA system.
O’Rourke said that fact has been known for years. “I’m not blaming you for where we are… I want to know what your goal is and how we’re doing against it.”
“The goal is to do our best to make sure we have done everything possible,” Wilkie said.
“We’ll never be able to judge you on that,” O’Rourke interrupted.
Wilkie, 56, then explained that most of the men completing suicide are his father’s age. “That means these are problems that are fifty years in the making,” he said.
O’Rourke, still not satisfied with Wilkie’s response, asked if he agreed with the GAO’s finding that the agency does not have targets for preventing suicide.
One of Wilkie’s lieutenants at the VA, Steven Lieberman, MD, broke into the discussion, attempting to rescue his colleague from O’Rourke’s interrogation. He said the VA agreed with the report’s conclusions and its recommendations.
As for goals, Lieberman said, “We are in the process of developing more robust ones.”
Wilkie faced more challenging questions from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) who highlighted a recent NPR story that described how veterans have been incorrectly downgraded from caregiver support programs, including some double and triple amputees.
Wilkie said the problems highlighted by NPR were corrected within 48 hours.
“Those are not isolated cases, we’re hearing many of them” Murray said. She asked Wilkie for his assurance that no one else would be terminated or downgraded until he has made sure that program regulations are correctly applied.
“Absolutely, I will make that commitment and I will brief these committees,” Wilkie responded.
While much of the hearing was devoted to the VA allegedly abandoning veterans, some members from both chambers acknowledged a black eye for Congress: its inability to pass the “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.”
Th bill would provide eligibility for disability to thousands of veterans who served in Vietnamese waters and developed illnesses thought to be related to Agent Orange and other herbicides.
The House passed the bill unanimously in June, but it stalled in the Senate.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said the Senate had “dropped the ball” but there were still objections to it in his chamber.
“We’re going to come right back and hit the ground running” in the new year, Isakson said, acknowledging that Wilkie “helps us where he can.”