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Department of Veteran Affairs left millions of dollars aimed at suicide prevention unspent
The New York Daily News - 12/19/2018
Dec. 19--The Department of Veteran Affairs spent less than 1% of the millions of dollars allocated for suicide prevention and educational outreach for 2018, according to a new report.
The Government of Accountability study released Monday revealed that of the $6.2 million set aside for suicide prevention and media outreach for the 2018 fiscal year, only $57,000 was actually used as of September. Social media content shared on the subject also saw a significant drop in 2017 and then again in 2018.
During former President Barack Obama's final year in office in 2016, the agency developed 339 pieces of content aimed at suicide prevention. The department in 2017 posted 159 pieces of prevention content and just 47 pieces have been shared this year as of July 2018.
The agency's failure to spend the funds is troubling for several reasons -- among them top officials' vows to make suicide prevention a top clinical priority for the Veterans Health Administration. There's also a "disproportionately higher rate" of suicides within the veteran community compared to the rate among average civilians.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans counted for 14.3% of all deaths by suicide among adults in 2015, despite only making up 8.3% of the adult population.
In June 2018, the VA revealed an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day in 2015.
"At a time when 20 veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to veterans in crisis," Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee told the Military Times.
"Unfortunately, the VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority."
Officials with the Veterans Health Administration blamed the issue on leadership turnover dating back to 2017 -- the agency's top suicide prevention post for example, was left vacant from July 2017 to April 2018.
"By not assigning key leadership responsibilities and clear lines of reporting, VHA's ability to oversee the suicide prevention media outreach activities was hindered and these outreach activities decreased," the report reads.
"As a result, VHA may not have exposed as many people in the community, such as veterans at risk for suicide, or their families and friends, to its suicide prevention outreach content."
Agency spokesman Curt Cashour specifically pointed to President Trump's first secretary, David Shulkin, who was fired in March 2018.
"During former VA employee David Shulkin's brief tenure as secretary, VA's suicide prevention outreach dropped significantly, and the suicide prevention office had no permanent leader for nearly nine months," he said.
"Within weeks of his arrival at VA, then-Acting Secretary Wilkie appointed Dr. Keita Franklin as VA's new suicide prevention director, and she is reviewing the spending for this important program as part of her duties."
The GAO recommended in its report that the VA "establish an approach to oversee its suicide prevention media outreach campaign that includes a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities" as well as "establish targets for its metrics to improve evaluation efforts."
"It is extremely disappointing that VA had allowed the focus to lapse on outreach. Resources are available and I would hope that VA moves quickly to improve suicide prevention and outreach," Veterans Affairs Chairman Phil Roe said in a statement.
"Reaching just one veteran with information about the support and services available may just save a life."
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