- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2017

While suicide rates rise across the general U.S. population, they are increasingly rising faster in the veteran population, Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Wednesday morning, speaking to a conference audience ahead of a Senate hearing to address preventive measures of suicide.

Over 42,000 people committed suicide in 2014, and of those, at least 20 suicides a day were veterans, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In light of September being suicide prevention awareness month, the VA last week released a report on the suicide rates of veterans. The risk for suicide was 22 percent higher in veterans compared to the general U.S. population, 19 percent higher in veteran males, and 2.5 times higher in female veterans compared to the general population, the findings showed.

“Suicide rates are increasing close to 24 percent over the last 15 years in the general population. They are increasing faster in the veteran population,” Dr. Shulkin said. “You can see particularly among females this is a dramatically rising issue, for veteran females, 62 percent increase over the last 15 years.”

Dr. Shulkin made his remarks at the opening of the the Cohen Veterans Care Summit in Washington, D.C.

The Cohen Veterans Bioscience and Cohen Veteran Care Network are nonprofit and research organizations started in 2015 by billionaire and philanthropist Stephen A. Cohen. The aim of the organizations is to advance the understanding and treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

The two-day conference features leaders in medicine and the armed services working to advance the treatment of brain injuries, and it also features NFL hall-of-famer Warren Sapp who will talk about the dangers of multiple head traumas.

Dr. Shulkin’s remarks outlined the next steps the VA will take to better address the issue and how he plans to include Congress in the process.

“What we’re doing across the country is really committing and energizing a more prescient approach to doing what we can to reduce suicides,” he said. “Every one of our medical centers has signed a suicide prevention declaration with 10 action steps that they’re committed to that they’re going to be implementing to reduce [suicides]. … I will sign this declaration with my chairman and ranking member of the Senate in about 20 minutes now, prior to us going into our hearing on suicide prevention. But we are really trying to up our efforts to do everything we possibly can.”

Other steps the VA is taking is to increase access to care and improve services with more transparency to the system. Earlier this year, the VA announced a new web portal that would allow veterans to see wait times at their local VA hospitals, read reviews from veterans who are treated there and also opt for private health care if they feel they can’t get the service they need at their local VA.

Dr. Shulkin also said he would be meeting at the White House later to discuss the opioid epidemic, its impact on the veteran population and steps the VA has taken to limit opioid prescriptions.

“The VA has been leading those efforts. Starting back in 2010, we’ve seen a 36 percent reduction, and the initiatives that we’re doing are showing the rest of the country effective ways to begin to deal with this epidemic,” he said.

• Laura Kelly can be reached at lkelly@washingtontimes.com.

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