January 03, 2019

Cortez Masto Requests Response from VA on Mishandling of Suicide Prevention Efforts

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) joined a letter led by Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) requesting a response from Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which found that the VA mishandled suicide prevention efforts. The GAO report stated that the VA’s efforts to reduce the high suicide rate among veterans lacked leadership and millions of funding budgeted for outreach went unspent.

“This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that found that leadership vacancies contributed to the decline of VA’s paid suicide prevention media outreach activities,” the senators wrote. “That comes at a time when suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority and the third highest priority in the Department’s 2018-2024 Strategic Plan. Given this prominence on VA’s priority lists, it is appalling that the Department’s oversight of its own outreach efforts was found to be so lacking.”

The senators continued, “Dysfunction at VA cannot be the excuse for the lack of a plan to execute suicide prevention outreach. Regardless of changes in leadership and organizational realignment, efforts to prevent suicide must remain at the forefront of the Department’s care of veterans. To allow critical outreach to lapse because of delays caused by staffing-related issues is a dereliction of VA’s responsibility to care for veterans – especially those at-risk of suicide.”

Of the $6.2 million allocated to paid suicide prevention outreach like promoted social media posts and sponsored keyword search results, the VA only spent $57,000, less than one percent of its budget. The report also found that the VA does not have trackable goals or targets to evaluate the effectiveness of its suicide prevention efforts. In addition, the report found that a lack of consistent or permanent leadership hampered the VA’s suicide prevention efforts and outreach.

A copy of the letter can be found HERE and below:

Dear Mr. Secretary,

We are concerned that the Department of Veterans Affairs is not using every resource at its disposal to prevent the staggering number of suicides among veterans. 

This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that found that leadership vacancies contributed to the decline of VA’s paid suicide prevention media outreach activities. That comes at a time when suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority and the third highest priority in the Department’s 2018-2024 Strategic Plan. Given this prominence on VA’s priority lists, it is appalling that the Department’s oversight of its own outreach efforts was found to be so lacking. 

GAO found that of the $6.2 million obligated in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 for suicide prevention paid media efforts, as of September, VHA had spent just $57,000. Dysfunction at VA cannot be the excuse for the lack of a plan to execute suicide prevention outreach. Regardless of changes in leadership and organizational realignment, efforts to prevent suicide must remain at the forefront of the Department’s care of veterans. To allow critical outreach to lapse because of delays caused by staffing-related issues is a dereliction of VA’s responsibility to care for veterans – especially those at-risk of suicide.

Further, GAO found that VA lacks targets to assist in evaluating the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts. It appears that while VA outwardly advances suicide prevention as its highest goal, its internal actions are lacking. An example of this is the Department’s failure to set goals for the majority of the metrics it uses to evaluate the effectiveness of its suicide prevention media outreach campaign. Without such information, VA does not know whether its campaign is working. For example, GAO indicated that VA’s 2016 Suicide Prevention Month summary indicated that there was an 8 percent uptick in the number of visits to the Veterans’ Crisis Hotline. What VA’s report did not show was whether the 8 percent met expectations. Given the “focus” on suicide prevention efforts in recent years, 8 percent may have been low given the increased emphasis. But – we cannot evaluate that statistic because of the lack of a goal.

Recommendations in the report included an established approach for VA to oversee its suicide prevention media outreach campaign that incorporates a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities and establishes goals for its metrics to improve evaluation efforts. While we understand you have agreed with these reasonable attempts to get suicide prevention efforts on track, we further request that VA provide a full accounting of the $17.7 million VA budgeted for its suicide prevention and mental health media outreach for FY 2018. We also request that rather than rely strictly on metrics the Department develops internally, that VA consult with experts with proven track records of successful public and mental health outreach campaigns with a particular emphasis on how those individuals measure success.

Every veteran suicide is a tragic outcome and outreach is key to making progress against this American public health crisis. We look forward to your response and commitment to keeping suicide prevention as VA’s highest clinical priority. 

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