(U.S. Senate) –Ranking Member Jon Tester today grilled top VA officials about their efforts to reverse the high rate of veteran suicide in Montana.
Tester is demanding VA Secretary David Shulkin create a concrete action plan that prevents the loss of life and addresses the serious mental health issues plaguing veterans in Montana and across the nation.
“The VA needs to take a more creative and aggressive approach to suicide prevention,” Tester told Shulkin during a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We need an action plan on how the VA is addressing this crisis in Montana that engages local communities, providers, veterans and their family members. It’s on all of us to make sure that not one life is lost.”
Helena veteran Matt Kuntz, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montana, testified before Tester’s Committee and advocated for additional mental health resources in rural areas.
“It is very hard for rural Montana communities to recruit and retain healthcare workers,” said Kuntz. “Our rural healthcare professionals have to walk a tightrope between finding enough patients to make a living and pay off their student loans, while not being overwhelmed by the workload.”
Tester then questioned VA officials about the impact that VA’s chronic workforce shortages are having on veterans seeking mental health care and VA’s efforts to reach out to vulnerable and hard-to-reach veterans.
“VA Montana is short about 20 mental health professionals right now,” said Tester. “The best laid plans without the people and infrastructure below it won’t help veterans in rural areas. We need to make sure we can hire mental health professionals before we can make inroads with hard-to-reach veterans.”
In response to Tester’s questioning, Shulkin admitted that the VA is struggling to fill vacancies for mental health professionals.
As Ranking Member, Tester has pushed Congress to find ways to streamline VA’s hiring process for hard-to-fill medical positions. In August, President Trump signed into law Tester’s bill that enables the VA to more quickly fill medical vacancies in places like Montana.
Tester has been working to expand rural and disabled veterans’ access to mental telehealth care by enabling more Montana veterans to utilize VA services out of the telehealth clinic in Salt Lake City.
Tester recently introduced bipartisan legislation to expand a successful pilot at the Kalispell Vet Center that will increase access to mental health services for local veterans by reimbursing them for their travel to the Vet Center.
Tester recently introduced a bipartisan bill that will address the crippling mental health workforce shortages at the VA. His bill will allow the VA to hire more Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists. Tester also secured funding for these crucial counselors and therapists in the appropriations bill that will fund the VA through 2018.
Any veteran in crisis – or anyone concerned about a veteran in crisis – can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, send a text to 838255, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net at any time.