New VA policy is expected to save some Ky. veterans by providing free emergency mental-health care to all vets, even if not enrolled

By Sarah Ladd
Kentucky Lantern

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Veterans and service members calling 988 can press 1 for specific crisis help from the Veterans Crisis Line.

Once a veteran has decided to take their own life, “every minute counts,” said Army combat veteran Jeremy Harrell.

That’s why he believes a new federal policy aimed at decreasing veteran suicides through free emergency mental health care will be “an actual lifesaver” for Kentucky, which is home to about 370,000 veterans. It’s unclear how many of those aren’t enrolled in the Department for Veterans Affairs health-care system. Up to 9 million could benefit nationwide.

The new policy went into effect Jan. 17. It bypasses VA’s enrollment rules, which Harrell said have kept some veterans from enrolling, Harrell said.

The policy allows veterans – both those enrolled in the VA system and those who are not – can go to any health-care facility – VA or non-VA – to get free emergency mental-health care in the case of a suicide crisis.

Enrollment in the VA system is open to veterans who served 24 continuous months or their entire active-duty stretch. The minimum-duty rule doesn’t apply to those discharged because active duty caused or worsened a disability, and those who served before Sept. 7, 1980.

The new, free emergency care includes 30 days of inpatient or residential care and outpatient care for up to 90 days, says the VA.

“This is a really, really big step in the right direction when it comes to veteran suicide,” said Harrell, who founded Veteran’s Club, based in the Louisville area, and advocates for mental health through a variety of organizations.

The new access also makes his job as an advocate easier, he said. He always recommends the suicide prevention lifeline, 988, to folks who call him in crisis. But in the past he also had to ask a series of eligibility questions to find out how to help the person. That takes up precious time.

“The clock is ticking,” Harrell said. “What we know is that when a person makes the decision, particularly in the veteran community, to take their own life … every minute counts.”

Now, help is simpler. Call or text 988. Or, he said, “find your way to the nearest emergency room.”

In 2020, there were 119 veteran suicides in Kentucky, up from 100 in 2019, according to the VA. Data for 2021 and 2022 is not yet available. Harrell said he’s aware of six Kentucky veterans who died by suicide since November.

“It’s heartbreaking to know,” he said, “how many lives that we may have lost because of the bureaucracy.”

Who is eligible?

Eligibility criteria for this program are, according to the VA:

  • Veterans who were discharged or released from active duty after more than 24 months of active service under conditions other than dishonorable.
  • Former members of the armed forces, including reserve service members, who served more than 100 days under a combat exclusion or in support of a contingency operation either directly or by operating an unmanned aerial vehicle from another location who were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
  • Former members of the armed forces who were the victim of a physical assault of a sexual nature, a battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment while serving in the armed forces

Are there enough mental health professionals in Kentucky?

Kentucky has a shortage of mental-health-care providers, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration. In fact, 2022 data from the Rural Health Information Hub showed every single Kentucky county as a mental health shortage area.

That’s “very much a concern” for Harrell, he said, pointing to pandemic-induced burnout as a culprit and the need for more social workers.

Private entities also need to be trained in military lingo so they can best communicate with veterans who come in, he said.

But for now: “My hope is that, if nothing else, (hospital staff) can help stabilize the individual, putting eyes on the individual, and at least try to support them, because that’s a big part of it.”

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