(U.S. Senate) – At a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee oversight hearing, Ranking Member Jon Tester highlighted his innovative, bipartisan veterans suicide prevention bills aimed at addressing the alarming number of veteran suicides in Montana and across the country. Tester is also doubling down on those efforts by pushing for his bills’ inclusion in the Senate’s must-pass annual defense bill— the National Defense Authorization Act(NDAA).
“As we all know, suicide is a national public health crisis, and veterans are particularly hard hit,” said Tester at the hearing. “The Department must play the central role in combating this crisis and coordinating veteran care... But the VA cannot tackle the crisis alone – we need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
It is estimated that more than 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Of those, 14 have received no treatment or care from the VA. Earlier this year, Senators Tester and Moran (R-Kan.) introduced their landmark, bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which strengthens VA’s ability to provide both traditional and complementary mental health treatment at VA facilities, expands the reach of VA’s cutting-edge telehealth, and supports veterans as they transition out of the military.The bill has 30 bipartisan cosponsors and is supported by more than a dozen veterans organizations and mental health advocates.
Currently, Montana has one of the highest veteran suicide rates in the country. During the hearing, Tester questioned Major General Matthew T. Quinn of the Montana National Guard regarding efforts to help curb the high rate of suicides amongst Guardsmen. A report recently released by the VA, as required by the newly implemented VA MISSION Act, showed that the VA Montana Health Care System ranked first as the most underserved VA Health Care System for mental health as of December 2018.
“In your testimony you highlight important state-run programs like Montana’s Employee Assistance and Veteran Assistance Programs, which provide mental health services for state employees and members of the Guard,” said Tester. “Why was it important for the State of Montana to get involved?”
“It was important because of those service members serving in the National Guard,” replied General Quinn. “When the statistics showed that over half of those individuals who lost their lives to suicide were not veterans and did not have eligibility for veteran care, then there needed to be something we should do in order to provide them with the services that they need.”
Currently, members of the National Guard and Reserves undergo annual health assessments to identify medical issues that could impact their ability to deploy, but any follow-up care must almost always be pursued at their own expense. In an effort to expand mental health services to Guardsmen and Reservists, Tester has also introduced the bipartisan Care and Readiness Enhancement (CARE) for Reservists Act.
Doubling down on his efforts to address the veteran suicide epidemic, Tester is pushing for the inclusion of both the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act and the CARE for Reservists Act as amendments to the Senate’s must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.
Tester’s unyielding effort to include these provisions in NDAA have been praised by a number of Veterans Service Organizations.
“DAV is pleased to support two amendments being offered by Senator Tester to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 – Amendment No. 271, cosponsored by Senator Moran and Amendment No. 272, cosponsored by Senator Murkowksi – both of which will enhance collaboration and further serve to improve joint programming between the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, yielding important benefits and improved health care for both active-duty service members and veterans,” said the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
“MOAA has been a strong supporter of S. 785, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act because of the comprehensive nature of the bill,” said Air Force retired Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, President and CEO of Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). “We are especially pleased to see Senator Jon Tester and Senator Jerry Moran offer Amendment Number 271 in the National Defense Authorization Act to strengthen the coordination and treatment of mental health services between the DoD and VA. This critical legislation is exactly what is needed to close existing gaps between DoD and VA so servicemembers and veterans suffering from mental health or traumatic conditions can get the help they so desperately need.”
"PVA supports Amendment No. 271 to the National Defense Authorization Act,” said Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). “This Amendment includes provisions from S. 785, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, that would increase collaboration between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, which is an important part of ensuring improved mental health care for our nation's veterans with disabilities."
Tester’s amendments, which are co-sponsored by Senator Moran, must now be adopted by Republicans as part of the final defense package, which the Senate plans to vote on next week.
Full text of Tester’s amendment to bolster VA/DoD suicide prevention efforts is available HERE.
Full text of Tester’s amendment to improve access to mental health care for Guardsmen and Reservists is available HERE.
Tester’s opening statement as prepared for delivery is available to read HERE.