The Department of Veterans Affairs dramatically cut back on suicide prevention outreach in the past two years even as veterans' suicide rates continued to soar, Stars and Stripes reported.
Citing findings of a Government Accountability Office investigation, of the $6.2 million budget mandated for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal year 2018, the agency spent $57,000 — less than 1 percent — by September. Agency officials told investigators they would spend a total $1.5 million by Oct. 1, the end of the fiscal year, with the remaining $4.7 million going unused, the news outlet reported.
A VA spokesperson told Newsmax suicide prevention is the agency's "highest clinical priority," but said outreach dropped siginificantly because the suicide prevention office had no permanent leader for nearly nine months.
"We accept GAO’s recommendation to do more to evaluate the effectiveness of the suicide prevention media outreach campaign," said Curtis Cashour. "Dr. Keita Franklin ... is reviewing the spending for this important program as part of her duties."
In 2017, the VA had a budget of $1.7 million for suicide prevention and other mental health outreach, but spent about $136,000, or less than 10 percent, on suicide prevention. Also in 2017, the VA had a "limited effort" for suicide prevention month in September because they did not prepare, the GAO found.
The number of social media posts, public service announcements, billboards, and radio, bus, Facebook and print ads also dropped in 2017 and 2018.
"VA has stated that preventing veteran suicide is its top clinical priority, yet [the Veterans Health Administration's] lack of leadership attention to its suicide prevention media outreach campaign in recent years has resulted in less outreach to veterans," the GAO report stated, Stars and Stripes reported.
An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide each day, according to VA data — disproportionately higher than the rest of the U.S. population — Stars and Stripes reported. Among veterans younger than 35, the number has increased substantially.
"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., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs who requested the GAO probe, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority."
The VA blamed leadership vacancies for the downturn, saying "organizational transitions and realignments" created confusion from mid-2017 to mid-2018, but claimed there has been significant improvements, the news outlet reported.
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