Military veterans can now receive free emergency mental health care

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By Haley Britzky, CNN

(CNN) -- As of Tuesday, US military veterans in an "acute suicidal crisis" can receive free treatment including inpatient care up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days.

The expanded care was announced by the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday, and is meant to "prevent veteran suicide by guaranteeing no cost, world-class care to veterans in times of crisis." Veterans who are seeking that care can go to any VA or non-VA health care facility, the release said, and they do not have to be enrolled in the VA system to receive care.

"Veterans in suicidal crisis can now receive the free, world-class emergency health care they deserve -- no matter where they need it, when they need it, or whether they're enrolled in VA care," VA Secretary for Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said in the release. "This expansion of care will save Veterans' lives, and there's nothing more important than that."

The new policy says veterans who were discharged after more than two years of service under conditions other than dishonorable are eligible for the care, which will either be paid for or reimbursed by the VA.

The policy will also apply to former service members, including those in the Reserves, who served "more than 100 days under a combat exclusion or in support of a contingency operation" who were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, and veterans who were the victim of sexual assault, sexual battery, or sexual harassment while serving.

According to the VA's release, the policy will "[p]rovide, pay for, or reimburse for treatment" of eligible veterans' emergency suicide care, transportation costs, and follow-up care at a VA or non-VA facility, to include 30 days of inpatient care and 90 days of outpatient.

The policy will also allow the VA to make "appropriate referrals" after a period of emergency suicide care, determine veterans' eligibility for other service and benefits from the VA, and refer veterans who received the emergency care to other VA programs and benefits.

The VA's 2022 report on veteran suicide said that in 2020, 6,146 US veterans died by suicide, which was 343 fewer than seen in 2019. Suicide was the 13th leading cause of death among veterans in 2020, the report said, and the second leading cause of death among veterans under 45 years old.

A Defense Department report released in October 2022 found that 519 US service members, including active duty, Reserve, and National Guard troops, died by suicide in 2021.

Expanding care for veterans at high risk of suicide was the second priority goal of a military and veteran suicide prevention strategy released by the White House in 2021. "Individuals at imminent or high risk of suicide should be guaranteed equitable access to high quality crisis care and follow-on support," the strategy report said.

President Joe Biden said in the 2021 report that the US is "falling short" of the "one truly sacred obligation to Americans ... to care for them and their families when they return."

"It is up to us to do everything in our power to live up to our most sacred obligations," he said. "We owe it to the memories of those we've lost—and we owe it to the futures of those we might save."

Editor's Note: If you or a loved one have contemplated suicide, call The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a trained counselor.

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