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VA plans expanded mental care for discharged vets

Hope Yen
Associated Press

Washington — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin touted new efforts Wednesday to expand urgent mental health care to thousands of former service members with less-than-honorable discharges, even while acknowledging his department isn’t seeking additional money to pay for it.

Testifying at a House hearing, Shulkin offered new details on his initiative announced in March to stem stubbornly high rates of suicide. Stressing a need at that time for “bold action,” he noted the additional coverage would help former service members who are more likely to have mental health distress. Of the 20 veterans who take their lives each day, about 14 had not been connected to VA care.

There are more than 500,000 former service members with other-than-honorable discharges. Still, Shulkin indicated there won’t be much additional spending to pay for the medication, lab work, case management and psychotherapy now being covered.

“There is no higher priority, so we will do this within the funding the president has proposed,” Shulkin told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He did not indicate what other programs could be cut.

“We are not going to let the fact there are not additional monies right now to prevent us from offering these additional services,” Shulkin said.

Separately, the House approved legislation Wednesday to require the VA to fully comply with appointment scheduling practices that followed a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center. Some veterans died waiting months for appointments. Wednesday’s vote was 419-0. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Shulkin, meanwhile, announced plans to set up a White House telephone hotline to receive veterans’ complaints about the VA, a key campaign promise from President Donald Trump. Shulkin said a “soft launch” was planned June 1.