Trump to sign new executive order to reduce suicide among recent veterans

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will expand mental-health care for transitioning veterans as they leave the military, an effort to reduce suicides in a group that is considered particularly at risk.

 

The changes will stem from an executive order that the president will sign Tuesday afternoon, administration officials said. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said in phone call with reporters Tuesday that it will it take effect March 9, giving the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs 60 days to iron out details and develop a joint plan.

The executive order calls for “seamless access to mental health treatment and suicide prevention resources for transitioning service members” in the year following military service, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House. Within 180 days, the departments are expected to report back to Trump on implementation of the plan.

Shulkin said he has identified suicide among veterans as his top clinical priority, and determined that people who have left the military within a year are between 1 1/2 to two times as likely to commit suicide as any other age group. The federal government estimates that about 20 veterans per day commit suicide.

“That is just an unacceptable number, and we are focused on doing everything we can to prevent these veterans’ suicides,” Shulkin said.

Many details about the program, first reported Tuesday morning by Military Times, are not yet clear. Shulkin said there are about 265,000 service members who transition out of the military each year, and the cost of providing each of them extended mental health coverage “will be in the magnitude of a couple hundred million dollars per year” coming out out of the Defense Department and VA budgets. But he said it will be paid for with existing money.

One change expected is that a Defense Department program known as Military OneSource will be expanded to include services for a full year after a service member leaves the military, rather than 180 days, said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the details ahead of Trump’s announcement. The program offers face-to-face counseling to discuss relationships, deployments and reintegration, and a 24-hour call that assists with everything from moving to managing a budget.

The Pentagon also will look for ways to start the transition process for service members earlier during their time in uniform, the official said, though the timelines are not yet clear.

“The issue here is looking at transition as a process, and not an event,” the official said.

The government has long grappled with how to reduce the rate of veterans suicide. VA reported in 2013 that about 21 veterans per day took their lives, and updated the figure in 2016 with improved statistics.

A VA study released in 2016 said that the risk of suicide was 19 percent among male veterans when compared to male civilians, and 2 1/2 times higher among female veterans than among civilian women. The rate of suicide among male veterans was highest among veterans between the ages of 18 and 29, and the highest among women between 40 and 59, the study found.

 

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