NEW: Vets struggling with suicidal thoughts can receive free care at VA centers

Veterans in suicidal crisis can go to any VA or non-VA health facility for free emergency care.

For veterans struggling with thoughts of suicide, new help is available — and it may be free.

Starting Tuesday, veterans suffering thoughts of suicide can go to any VA or non-VA health care facility for emergency health care at no cost, including inpatient or crisis residential care for up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days, the Department of Veterans Affairs said.

The VA will cover co-pays and fees, said Jay Wainscott, Dayton VA suicide prevention program manager.

“It covers it all,” Wainscott said in an interview Tuesday.

Veterans do not need to be enrolled in the VA system to take advantage of this benefit.

Wainscott said one of the risks for those struggling with this problem is fear of financial consequences. He urged veterans in crisis to call the veterans’ crisis line, 988, and press 1 at the prompt to speak with someone 24-7.

Locally, it’s the Dayton VA’s goal to follow up on emergency calls within 24 hours. Wainscott has a licensed staff of seven working with veterans from Middletown to Lima.

“It is a big job,” he said. “My team is consistently busy, and we are doing everything in our power to make sure their needs are getting met, period.”

Most veterans who take their lives have not received VA care in the past two years, he said. “I would certainly say this type of service is needed.”

The number of calls for help has remained somewhat steady, although Wainscott said his team did see a slight uptick around Christmas, he said.

“I can’t tell you the numbers of veterans that we talk to who are appreciative that they get a live voice,” Wainscott said. “We do everything in our power to resolve whatever is going on with them.”

Nationally, in 2020, 6,146 veterans took their lives, which was 343 fewer than in 2019, the VA said.

“Veterans in suicidal crisis can now receive the free, world-class emergency health care they deserve, no matter where they need it, when they need it or whether they’re enrolled in VA care,” Secretary for Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said. “This expansion of care will save veterans’ lives, and there’s nothing more important than that.”

The new action will provide acute suicide care for up to 9 million veterans not enrolled with the VA, the department said.

The VA has submitted an interim final rule on the change to the federal register to establish this authority.

According to a VA report released last year, suicides among veterans increased by an average of 43 every year from 2001 to 2018 before the trend started to slowly improve.

John Raughter, a spokesman for the American Legion, applauded the news.

“We definitely welcome this. We think it’s a good move by the VA. Anytime you can assist veterans going through these kinds of problems , it can be a gamechanger,” Raughter told this news outlet Tuesday.

The Legion set up its “Be the one” web site last year, encouraging veterans to seek help, to take advantage of the VA’s new 988 suicide prevention line.

Last summer, the VA announced new efforts to address the problem, including establishing 988 (then press 1) as a way for veterans to connect with support. A follow-up number for care after initial emergencies is (844) 724-7842.

The new authority allows the VA to pay for or reimburse for treatment of eligible individuals’ care, transportation costs and follow-up care at a VA or non-VA facility for up to 30 days of inpatient care and 90 days of outpatient care.

Carol Griesdorn, Ohio board chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said veterans can often be stymied by not knowing where to turn first or how to take that first step.

“It’s very hard for our veterans — or anybody — to get mental health resources,” she said.

Eligible individuals, regardless of VA enrollment status, are:

  • Veterans who were discharged or released from active duty after more than 24 months of active service under conditions other than dishonorable.
  • Former members of the armed forces, including Reserve members, who served more than 100 days under a combat exclusion or in support of a contingency operation either directly or by operating an unmanned aerial vehicle from another location who were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
  • Former members of the armed forces who were the victim of a physical assault of a sexual nature, a battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment while serving in the armed forces.

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