BY:  Meghan Stubblebine

The Department of Veterans Affairs released a report early this February revealing a startling statistic: an average of twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day. The Suicide Data Report, published by Dr. Janet Kemp and Dr. Robert Bossarte, tracked suicides and suicide attempts among veterans from 1999 to 2010. The report found that the number of suicides among veterans increased during the course of the study, but the overall percentage of veterans committing suicide decreased compared to the general population. Sixty-nine percent of veterans that committed suicide were fifty years or older, with ninety-seven percent of suicide victims male. Vietnam era veterans appear to be at the forefront of veterans most impacted by suicide.

Although these fatal suicide statistics are distressing, the report’s statistics regarding non-fatal suicides are also very concerning. In 2012, almost 11,000 veterans using services from the Veterans Health Administration attempted suicide but survived. Over fifty percent of these non-fatal suicide events happened as a result of overdoses or intentional poisoning. The report did not state a finding about how many of the overdoses and poisonings were due to illicit drugs. Veterans’ advocates could benefit from future reports that determine how many of these attempts were due to illicit drug overdoses. Links between illicit drug usage, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder may impact whether the Department of Veterans Affairs will codify a causal connection between the three problems. This could greatly change the way mental health services are provided and disability claims granted.

There is one hopeful statistic in the report. The study found that preliminary evidence from 2012 suggests a decrease in the rate of non-fatal suicide attempts for veterans who utilize the Veterans Health Administration’s services. Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs will use this report’s findings to better serve the at-risk veteran population. The Department of Veterans Affairs now recognizes that the first four weeks following service at the Veterans Health Administration are some of the most dangerous for at-risk veterans. The Department now will increase monitoring and care management during this time period. Beyond publishing this report, the Department is also recommending changes to the way the Veterans Health Administration approaches helping at-risk veterans. This report has the potential to cause real effective change at the department.

Although this report’s information is revealing, it is not surprising due to the many studies finding high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies among the veteran population. Prior to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ study, many studies found that veterans are at a drastically greater risk of suicide than the general population. In a study published by the American Journal of Public Health, veterans between the ages of 17 and 24 are at four times greater risk of committing suicide than the general population. This Clinic is founded on the understanding of the great need for mental health services for veterans.  The Lewis B. Puller Jr. Clinic was named in honor of a Pulitzer prize winning Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and ultimately succumbed to suicide. He died from over two and a half decades ago from the problems the department is beginning to address now.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is correct in changing how it approaches suicide prevention among veterans. This problem desperately needs to be addressed, particularly with millions more men and women leaving the military over the next few years. The greatest issue the Department of Veterans Affairs will struggle with over the next few years is whether it adjusts quickly enough to stop this epidemic from worsening. The department-wide emphasis on large scale improvements to mental health services is still new and significant changes may not come quickly. There is still much work to do, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking a positive step forward in helping veterans get the help they need and deserve.

For more information, please see:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/02/us/suicide-statistics-from-the-department-of-defense.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/opinion/sunday/kristof-a-veterans-death-the-nations-shame.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/12/obituaries/lewis-puller-jr-vietnam-hero-and-biographer-is-dead-at-48.html

 

BY: Dustin Lujan

It has been recognized that suicides have become a major problem among active-duty service members who have served during the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In 2012, there were 349 suicides amongst individuals on active duty, this was greater than the number of deaths that resulted from combat during the same period of time.  This works out to approximately one suicide every day.  Recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) brought attention to the equally troubling issue of suicide amongst U.S. veterans.  The VA, in a report issued on February 1, 2013, declared that there are approximately 22 veteran suicides every day.  That works out to approximately one suicide every 65 minutes. Veterans suicides account for 21 percent of all suicides in the United States.

To help combat this rising problem, President Obama issued an executive order on August 31, 2012 requiring the VA to increase the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line to assist veterans that may be having suicidal thoughts or ideations.  The VA reports that the crisis line has resulted in 26,000 rescues of actively suicidal veterans.  Raising awareness about this problem is important because it shows the significance of getting veterans the care they need and deserve from the VA.  As we as a society have begun to recognize the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) there has been a proliferation of resources available to individuals that have experienced trauma through their military service.  It is important that veterans are made aware of these services.

At the same time, it is important for individuals working with veterans be on the lookout for potential warning signs of suicidal behavior.  During my time working with the Veterans Benefits Clinic at William and Mary I have learned some of the signs that may indicate an individual is suffering from PTSD or depression.  Many veterans have been through traumatic experiences as part of their service defending this country and it is imperative that we as a society work together to provide them the resources necessary to cope with these issues.  A part of this process is getting veterans the VA benefits they are entitled to. This is part of the reason why I feel that the Veterans Benefits Clinic provides such an invaluable service to our nation’s veterans.

Much work has been done to combat the effects of PTSD and depression amongst veterans, but there still remains much work to do.  22 suicides every day is simply unacceptable and the VA and other organizations will continue to work vigorously to lower this number.  The VA’s crisis hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.  Additionally, there are multiple resources available at the Veterans Crisis Line  website at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

 

BY: Thomas Joraanstad

The Department of the Treasury issued a new rule that will eliminate paper checks for most federal benefits, including Veterans Affairs benefits.  Paper checks for benefits will end completely by March 1, 2013.

According to the Department of Treasury, the new rule is designed to save money and reduce waste. Furthermore, the new rule will improve the safety of veterans’ benefits as well as make receiving the benefits more convenient for veterans. Eric K. Shinseki, the Secretary for Veterans Affairs, commented that the new rule will “increase the security, convenience, and reliability” of veterans’ benefits.

Veterans who do not switch to direct deposit by the deadline will still receive their benefits. However, instead of a paper check, they will receive a pre-paid debit card. Although this may seem like a drastic change, most veterans are already on direct deposit. In fact, even homeless veterans frequently use direct deposit.

Those on direct deposit will see no change in how their benefits are delivered. Veterans Service Organizations are encouraged to reach out to the veterans with whom they work to inform them of this change and help the veterans establish direct deposit if necessary.

For more information about this program, veterans can visit www.GoDirect.org . Veterans can always switch to direct deposit with this website. As always, more information about veterans benefits can be found at www.va.gov or 1-800-827-1000.

By: K.N. Barrett

 With a backlog of well over 900,000 claims, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is certainly under pressure to find a faster, more efficient method for processing veterans’ disability claims. Currently, the way applying for disability benefits works, veterans fill out their claims documents and submit them to the Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) of the VA. Upon receiving these claims documents, the VBA schedules veteran claimants in person medical evaluations, called Compensation and Pension Exams (C&P Exams). At these evaluations, VA approved medical personnel examine veterans and determine the severity of the veterans’ disabilities and provide the VBA with a report indicating their findings. As can be imagined, going through this process for every single claim on behalf of every single veteran claimant is a long and time consuming process, which has contributed to the severe backlog situation. However, the VA may have come up with a solution to help speed this process along and eliminate the in-person examination requirement.

In September of 2012 the VHA issued Directive 2012-025, Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE) to Support the Compensation & Pension (C&P) Disability Evaluation Process. The purpose of this directive is to shorten the time claims spend being evaluated by the VHA, allowing the VBA to process claims faster. This initiative allows clinicians evaluating veterans’ claims to use medical evidence that has already been documented in veterans’ claims files, supplemented with phone interviews with the veteran claimants, to prepare veterans’ Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs) without requiring veterans to appear in person for their evaluations. The DBQ is a claims form that helps to ensure that VA ratings specialists have the exact information they need to process veterans’ claims. This change in the process will undoubtedly shorten the wait time for veterans to get through the medical screening process and get their claims evaluated by a VA specialist.

The VA decided to evaluate this new processing system in a 15-month pilot program at one of its regional claims processing offices. During this test period thirty-eight percent of the claims submitted by veterans to the office were eligible for the ACE process, meaning VA medical personnel determined that the records requested contained satisfactory medical information for the processing of these veterans’ claims without the veterans having to physically come in for an evaluation. Percentages of claims eligible for the new process this high will certainly help the VA cut down its backlog numbers and process claims faster.

To read Directive 2012-025 please visit: http://www.va.gov/vhapublications/ViewPublication.asp?pub_ID=2790