There were other hearings on Capitol Hill today besides the impeachment bloodbath involving Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Over in House Visitors Center 210, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on two bills aimed at alleviating the nation’s veteran suicide epidemic. One is HR 3495, which would “provide financial assistance to eligible entities to provide and coordinate the provision of suicide prevention services for veterans at risk of suicide and veteran families through the award of grants to such entities, and for other purposes.” The other is a draft bill from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) that would change the way the VA doles out grants.
During the hearing, Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) questioned Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and Dr. David Carroll, executive director of the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. Cisneros began by asking about the VA’s reported 50,000 staff vacancies, and whether filling those would help address the problem.
“We continue to look at mental health staffing,” Carroll said, though he added that his department was only about 10 percent understaffed (roughly 2,400 positions).
Wilkie, who has had the top job at the VA since July 2018, added that the VA is “not immune from the pressures of the rest of society.” In other words, the U.S. as a whole lacks trained, professional mental health workers, and the VA is no different (though Wilkie did add that the VA was somehow doing better than the private sector in this regard).
Cisneros also took issue with an earlier response to the statistic that just six out of 20 vets are seeking mental health care–that the remaining 14 simply don’t want care.
“Secretary Wilkie, like your father, my father is also a Vietnam veteran,” Cisneros said. “It took my dad 30 years before he went to the VA. He didn’t even know that was an option for him. He was suffering from diabetes and later on after he started receiving his treatment from the VA he was also diagnosed with PTSD… We want to integrate these people into the VA, we want to make sure they’re getting this holistic healthcare from the VA… How are we getting the word out there to make sure these people are being brought in?”
Wilkie said that ever since the Trump Administration took over the VA, it’s been doing great. In fact, he said, in the last year, the agency has handled three million more appointments than the previous year. He also cited a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) survey that showed record approval from vets for the VA.
But Cisneros wasn’t buying any of it. “We need a better approach,” he said before his allotted time ran out.
You can watch the entire hearing below. Cisneros’ questioning begins at 1:41:07:
I recently wrote about my experience with veteran suicide. You can read that story here.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.