(U.S. Senate) – During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing today, Chairman Jon Tester discussed connecting veterans nationwide with lifesaving mental health care and suicide prevention services amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and urged swift implementation of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, also known as the Hannon Act.
During the hearing, Tester urged Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DoD) officials to expedite critical provisions under the Hannon Act to aggressively combat the suicide crisis amongst the nation’s servicemembers and veterans.
“VA and DoD both play essential roles for improving the mental health of our servicemembers and veterans,” said Chairman Tester. “And with my new role as Chairman of Defense Appropriations, I want to be sure that these departments are collaborating as much as possible…Dr. Smith, what progress has VA made in implementing this provision and coming up with a plan to offer VA health coverage to transitioning servicemembers?”
“Currently, we have put in place a large work group that was impaneled and met for the first time in early January, consisting of broad subject matter experts from the VA and DoD, VBA, so it spans across multiple offices,” replied Director of Field Support and Analytics for VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Dr. Clifford Smith. “…That group meets on a regular basis, it is chaired by Dr. Matthews from our office, the VA, and working closely with DoD partners alongside to fully implement the provision of health care in the first year of transition.”
Tester also highlighted the critical need to quickly implement the Vet Center Scholarship Program, a program established under this law. Vet Centers provide veterans and servicemembers in Montana and across the country with critical mental health services and counseling, and Tester has long advocated for ensuring staffing at these facilities is sufficient to meet the needs of veterans.
During the first panel, Tester heard from VA and veterans’ advocates on expanding veterans’ access to mental health care during the pandemic and beyond. He commended VA for its use of telehealth services, including through initiatives such as the ATLAS telehealth pod at the VFW post in Eureka, Montana—the first site in the country to provide this innovative telehealth care to rural veterans—and questioned officials and advocates on outstanding barriers to care.
Named for a Montana veteran who lost his life to the invisible wounds of war, Senator Tester introduced his bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act last Congress alongside Senator Jerry Moran to bolster VA’s mental health workforce, increase rural veterans' access to care, expand veterans’ access to alternative and local treatment options, improve coordination with the DoD, and conduct veteran suicide prevention research and oversight. President Donald Trump signed the monumental bill into law on October 17, 2020.
Tester recently joined Moran in calling on VA Secretary Denis McDonough to implement critical provisions under the Hannon Act, keeping with their bipartisan push to bolster mental health care for servicemembers and veterans suffering from invisible wounds of war, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senator’s opening statement as prepared for delivery can be found HERE.
Tester’s full Q&A is available HERE.
More information on the Hannon Act can be found HERE.