Washington, DC — Congressman Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) joined Reps. Jason Crow (D-CO), Trent Kelly (R-MS), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) in introducing the Veterans’ Sentinel Act to respond to suicide by U.S. veterans at VA facilities by improving the accuracy of data collection and enhancing congressional oversight.
The bill comes on the heels of an investigation that found multiple mistakes in the VA’s reporting of suicides on-campus. The bill is endorsed by VoteVets, Concerned Veterans for America, the National Guard Association of the United States, AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council, and AMVETS.
While representing less than eight percent of the adult population, veterans constitute over 13.5 percent of all suicide deaths in the U.S. per year. Some of those deaths have occurred on property of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA), but a September 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found the VA miscounted at least 14 out of 55 on-campus suicides reported. Without a clear understanding of the number of veterans that die by suicide and a proper analysis of the veteran’s history of interactions with VA officials, efforts to improve care are hamstrung and continue to fall short.
“Improving the accuracy of data on veteran suicides at VA facilities – and actually analyzing these incidents – can help prevent them from happening and get veterans in crisis the care they need,” said Crist. “Every veteran who dies by suicide is a tragedy. It is an honor to work with Representative Crow on this important step.”
“It’s hard to explain the barriers our soldiers face when it comes to mental health. Too often, those who come forward and get the help they need are met by an overburdened and bureaucratic VA system that fails to provide the care our veterans deserve,” said Crow. “When I came back from war and served as a veteran advocate in Colorado, I saw how many men and women were let down by the country they served. By improving the VA’s response to veteran’s suicide, we can make sure the VA is providing the care our veterans deserve.”
“As National Suicide Month comes to a close, It is vital that we continue to address the disturbing trend of Veteran suicides. The Veterans’ Sentinel Act is a powerful tool we can use to address this problem and protect the lives of these American Heroes. The loss of even one life is unacceptable and I am proud to be an original co-sponsor of this important legislation that helps prevent Veteran suicides,” said Kelly.
“Veteran suicide is a public health crisis,” said Omar. “It is unconscionable veterans who risked everything are falling through the cracks of a broken system. I’m proud to co-sponsor the Veterans’ Sentinel Act to address current deficiencies and enhance congressional oversight. It’s way past time we provide the resources necessary to prevent future tragedies.”
The Veterans’ Sentinel Act would:
- Create a two-year pilot program working group within the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention (OMHSP) specifically focused on veteran on-campus suicide and attempted suicides;
- Comprised of representatives from relevant VA offices to improve coordination
- Directed to use proven analytic methodology and tools to determine incident root causes
- Empowered to improve data collection and management processes to minimize accounting gaps
- Requires the VA Secretary to submit to Congress an annual report detailing on-campus veteran suicides and suicide attempts, to include trend analysis and recommendations for improving prevention efforts; and
- Directs the Comptroller General to conduct a review of the OMHSP and submit to Congress a report detailing the office’s actions to prevent veteran suicide, identify challenges, and provide recommendations for improvement.