President Donald Trump has launched a task force to develop a strategy to bring in private health systems and other providers to stem the veteran suicide rate.
A senior administration official on Tuesday unveiled the task force, which will be led by Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and established via executive order. The official shared few details, but emphasized that the private health sector is expected to play a major role since 70% of the veterans who commit suicide do not get their healthcare through the VA.
The task force has one year to lay out its strategy. Then the strategy will be funded through state and local grants. The official said the Trump administration hasn't determined out how large the grants will be. The administration likely will ask for a new appropriation for these grants, rather than use an existing funding stream, but even that isn't certain.
"The intention is not to have it government as usual," the official said, describing the effort as an umbrella effect of bringing private hospitals, academic medical centers, faith-based groups, tribal health centers and veterans service organizations together to work on an overarching strategy.
He added that the closest analogy for the program is likely the VA's partnership with the Housing and Urban Development Department to help homeless veterans. The administration is also likely to tap into the program, known as HUD-VASH, since it brings in VA case managers to connect homeless veterans with health, mental health and substance abuse treatment as well as housing vouchers. More than 85,000 veterans had active HUD-VASH vouchers at the end of fiscal 2018.
The new White House effort comes as critics say the VA hasn't done enough to address the suicide rate.
Last June, the department released a report that found about 20 veterans commit suicide each day, and that the rate for veterans is trending higher along with the overall national rate. The report also found that the suicide rate grew faster for those who hadn't recently used the VA health system.
Early this year a block of Democratic senators blasted the VA for its response to the veteran suicide crisis so far, following a Government Accountability Office report in late 2018 that found the department dropped some of its prevention outreach activities in 2017 and 2018, and spent less than 1% of its $6.2 million budget for paid suicide prevention outreach.
The White House is calling the executive order the President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or Prevents Initiative.