Top Democrats running for president in 2020 are vowing to reduce veteran suicide rates by improving access to mental health care and making improvements to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The issue has received newfound attention on the campaign trail with former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), as well as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg all releasing plans in recent weeks to address the issue.
And for the candidates it’s become an important way to signal their commitment to issues important to veterans, a group that overwhelmingly supported President Trump in the last election.
Trump has touted his administration’s work for veterans, but Democrats say those words don’t match reality.
“Each of them deserves our respect and enduring gratitude, both while on active duty and after separating from service,” Biden’s campaign wrote in the plan it rolled out Tuesday to coincide with Veterans Day. “President Trump has repeatedly failed our veterans and ignored this sacred obligation.”
More than 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, according to a recent report released by the VA.
Those troubling numbers have spurred a number of sweeping proposals.
Warren’s goal is to cut veteran suicides in half in her first term, in part by incorporating annual mental health exams for service members “in the same way they receive annual physical exams,” her campaign wrote in its plan released last week.
Warren and Sanders both support “Medicare for All,” which would extend health care coverage to everyone living in the U.S. The proposal would keep the VA to provide specialized care to the 9 million veterans it serves, but they would still be eligible for Medicare for All benefits.
“We also need to provide consistent, accessible, high-quality mental health care for all of our service members and veterans,” Warren’s campaign wrote in her plan.
“Under Medicare for All every person will have this essential care covered. But we must also address the shortfall of mental health providers at DOD [the Department of Defense] and VA, and in the areas where veterans live.”
Her administration would also invest in research into the causes of suicide, with a focus on factors that are specific to the military and veterans, the plan reads; increase the number of mental health specialists at the DOD and VA, “streamline” appointment processes and enhance access to telehealth.
“Every single one of these deaths is a tragedy that could have been prevented,” her plan reads.
The plans from Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg also specifically detail hiring more medical professionals to work at VA facilities.
“The VA must hire the doctors, nurses and medical professionals necessary to provide the care that veterans need when they need it,” Sanders wrote in his plan, noting the 50,000 vacancies at the VA.
Sanders’s plan would also expand the VA’s mental health benefits to members of the National Guard and Reserve, regardless of whether they’ve served overseas or in combat.
Biden, meanwhile, has set a goal of eliminating wait times for veterans who reach out with suicidal thoughts “so that they are immediately taken into treatment.”
His administration would expand the crisis hotline and implement more programs that provide treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.
A priority for Biden and other candidates is tackling the stigma associated with seeking mental health care that is prevalent among veterans.
Biden proposed outreach programs that would partner with community organizations and employers to help veterans understand care is “available and effective.”
“We must work to end the culture of silence around mental health issues and remove the stigma associated with getting mental health treatment, particularly among service members who are more used to helping others than asking for it themselves,” Biden’s plan reads.
Biden and Buttigieg both proposed increased training for VA providers focused on recognizing suicide risk in veterans.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, said he would address suicide risk factors, such as social isolation, limited health care options and high rates of opioid addiction.
Several 2020 Democrats have also vowed to create housing programs for veterans, with Harris noting that suicide rates and homelessness are correlated.
But the plans put much of their focus on the VA, an agency that has itself implemented reforms in recent years, after a number of scandals over long wait times for veterans to receive care.
The agency and the Pentagon have felt pressure in recent years to do more to stem the suicide rate for veterans and active-duty personnel.
In March, the Trump White House set up a task force to develop better strategies to reduce veteran suicides, including by better coordinating with the private health care providers many veterans turn to.
Several candidates have noted reform is needed at the VA to reduce suicide rates, pointing to claims the backlogs force veterans to wait months to get a determination of their benefits.
“The backlog has led to a dynamic where veterans feel like they have to fight to prove that they deserve their benefits,” Harris wrote in her plan.
Biden’s, Warren’s and Sanders’s plans all call for a modernization of the VA’s aging infrastructure and investments in new medical equipment.
Sanders’s plan would provide $62 billion in funding for VA infrastructure.
“VA hospitals have gone without needed updates and maintenance, and outpatient clinics and Vet Centers have gone unopened,” Sanders’s plan reads. “Due to serious underfunding, the VA’s infrastructure is crumbling and in vital need of repair.”