Weekly Columns

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is in the process of implementing major reforms that will improve health care and education benefits as well as modernize its information technology. Congress crafted these updates with the input of veterans who often identify policies or problems that can be solved with legislative fixes. This is why hearing from veteran service organizations is so important.

Arkansas members of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and other veteran service organizations annually visit Washington, D.C. to share their legislative priorities for the year. There is no substitute for coming to the nation’s capital and visiting with members of Congress to discuss the policy improvements that can deliver results for veterans. 

There is a united front from these organizations to prioritize improvements to women veterans’ health care and efforts to combat the epidemic of veteran suicides.  

We continue making progress to ensure the VA has the capability to meet the needs of every veteran. I am proud to join Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in leading efforts to improve VA culture and services for women with the reintroduction of the Deborah Sampson Act. Several veteran service organizations specifically called on Congress to pass the Deborah Sampson Actbecause they believe it will help the VA better support the needs of women veterans. 

There are more than 20,000 women veterans in Arkansas. Nationwide, they are using VA health care services at a rate three times great than in 2000, but many VA facilities still don’t have the ability to provide equitable care or services to women veterans. The Deborah Sampson Actwould change that. Our bill eliminates barriers to care by increasing the number of gender-specific providers in VA facilities, expanding training of the clinicians and retrofitting VA facilities to enhance privacy for women veterans.

Updating VA facilities and programs to meet the needs of the changing face of our veteran community is important to upholding our promise to women who served in our nation’s uniform. 

So too is revising the VA’s suicide prevention efforts.  

It’s estimated that an average of 20 veterans take their lives each day. Despite the federal funds invested to reverse the statistics of veterans who die by suicide, we have not seen an improvement. In light of this reality, we must reevaluate the VA’s programs to reduce veteran suicides.

That’s why I included language in the Fiscal Year 2019 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill that requires the VA to develop metrics to evaluate the efficacy of all of its mental health and suicide prevention programs. 

Since that was signed into law, the Government Accountability Office released a report that showed the VA failed to fully utilize its suicide and mental health prevention outreach funding. To improve the VA’s operation, oversight and evaluation of its suicide prevention media outreach campaigns, I joined with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to introduce the Reach Every Veteran in Crisis Act. This bill will help Congress and the VA isolate meaningful suicide prevention programs so we can ensure resources are focused on efforts that save lives. Suicide prevention must be a top priority. 

Advocacy by veteran service organizations has led to significant changes and improvements at the VA over the years. Their support for updates to health benefits for women veterans and successful suicide prevention programs is crucial as Congress crafts plans to resolve these challenges.