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Veterans Affairs dropped the ball severely on suicide prevention outreach, report shows


Millions of dollars for veteran suicide prevention outreach went unspent

Robert Wilkie, nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifies on June 27, 2018, before the US Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Department of Veterans Affairs left unspent more than $6 million that was allocated for suicide prevention outreach in the 2018 fiscal year, resulting in a dramatic decrease in efforts to reach out to veterans who may have been struggling, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

What happened? VA set aside $6.2 million for suicide prevention media outreach efforts during the fiscal year, but the department only used $57,000 of that amount. Social media posts about veteran suicide prevention and resources decreased by more than 60 percent. No outreach messages aired on national media outlets for more than a year.

How did this happen? Officials from the Veterans Health Administration said leadership turnover caused the failure to reach out to veterans about suicide prevention resources. Before Dr. Keita Franklin was appointed as the suicide prevention director at VA, that position was vacant from July 2017 until April 2018.

A VA statement said Franklin is "reviewing the spending for this important program as part of her duties."

What are they doing about it? With leadership now in place at Veterans Affairs, the department told the Military Times it has improved the organization and will implement new tracking metrics and resource management methods.

How important is this? On average, 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Most of those are veterans who don't have contact with VA in the months leading to their suicide, meaning proper outreach efforts could literally be saving the lives of veterans, and the lack of such efforts can be deadly.

VA officials know this; VA Secretary Robert Wilkie cites suicide prevention as a top focus for the department.

"At a time when 20 veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to veterans in crisis," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). "Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority."

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