WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced the Veterans Overmedication and Suicide Prevention Act, bipartisan legislation that would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct an independent expert study on the deaths of all veterans being treated at the VA who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years.
“I have worked across party lines to hold the VA accountable because too often our veterans have been prescribed drugs as a first resort before exploring other safer ways of getting the care they need. I’m proud to continue that work by leading this bipartisan effort with Senator Sullivan to confront the overmedication of veterans and prevent suicide deaths,” said Senator Baldwin. “Our veterans and their families deserve solutions to the challenges they face and this bipartisan legislation can help improve and save the lives of those that have served and sacrificed for our country.”
“Throughout my service as an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, I witnessed the struggles our servicemen and women experience in their search for proper care,” said Senator Sullivan. “It is our collective obligation – as members of Congress and as American citizens – to better understand the factors that contribute to veteran suicide, bolster preventative measures, and prevent these tragedies from occurring. Making sure that the VA has a holistic understanding of the information needed to stem veteran suicide is a critical step in this effort, and one that this bill makes great strides in addressing.”
This review would ensure that the VA has accurate information about the relationship between veteran suicides and prescription medication. Additionally, this legislation would direct the VA to perform a more comprehensive review of its behavioral health workforce with a focus on mental health counselors in an effort to address workforce shortages. These professionals will increase access to services and help reduce the incidence of suicide.
In a September 2019 report released by the VA, the department confirmed that at least 60,000 veterans had died by suicide between 2008 and 2017. Among U.S. adults, the average number of suicides per day rose from 86.6 in 2005 to 124.4 in 2017. These numbers included 15.9 veteran suicides per day in 2005 and 16.8 in 2017. In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex.
The legislation would require a National Academies of Science study to review:
- The total number of veterans who died by suicide in the last five years;
- The total number of veterans who were involved in a violent, suicidal or accidental death;
- The prevalence of medications or illegal substances in the system of each veteran who died;
- The number of instances in which the veteran was concurrently on multiple medications prescribed by VA physicians or non-VA physicians;
- The percentage of veterans who are receiving non-medication first-line treatment (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) as treatment and its effectiveness compared with other treatments;
- An analysis, by state, of programs of the VA that collaborate with state Medicaid agencies, including an analysis of the sharing of prescription and behavioral health data for veterans; and
- Other aspects of care and recommendations to improve the safety and well-being of veterans.
An online version of this release is available here.