After more than a decade of asymmetric war full of repeated deployments and near-constant exposure to the enemy, today's veterans are falling victim to the invisible wounds of combat all too often.
In 2012, more active-duty troops died from suicide than combat. Of the men and women who survive their service, an average of 18 to 22 take their own lives each day - a heartbreaking statistic that has remained unchanged for more than a decade.
The key to curbing the epidemic of veteran suicides is improving the accessibility and effectiveness of mental health care available to our returning heroes. But this slow-motion national tragedy is likely to continue as long as the Department of Veterans Affairs sticks to its normal, business-as-usual approach to mental health care delivery.
In the last six years, VA's mental health care staff and budget have grown by nearly 40 percent. Unfortunately, these significant increases in resources have not resulted in similar performance improvements.
Last year, VA's inspector general found that most veterans seeking VA mental health care wait 50 days on average to receive an evaluation. This year, the IG found that thousands of Georgia veterans had fallen through cracks in the VA system, possibly not receiving the mental health care they had sought.
We cannot wait to see what next year brings.
In order to truly maximize veterans' mental health care access, VA must embrace an approach to care delivery that treats veterans where and how they want, rather than where and how VA wants.
To help the department meet this challenge, I am working on draft legislation that would give veterans in need access to mental health treatment whether those services come from VA facilities or those in the private sector.
The Veterans Integrated Mental Health Care Act of 2013 is draft legislation that would require the department to provide mental health care to eligible veterans at non-VA facilities via care coordination contracts. These contracts would require participating private-sector entities to meet specific performance metrics regarding quality and timeliness of care and exchange relevant clinical information with VA, all with the goal of expanding access and improving continuity of care for veterans.
Some have said this approach could undermine the VA health care system. Nothing could be further from the truth. This proposal isn't about supplanting the VA healthcare system; it's about supporting and augmenting it.
The status quo, with an overburdened VA failing to adequately deliver mental health care to veterans who need it most, is what is truly undermining the integrity of the VA system. Allowing VA to offer care through qualified private-sector providers will help relieve the backlog of veterans waiting for mental health appointments, thereby enabling the department to provide better treatment for those they do see, and better access for all veterans.
When a veteran is seeking mental health care services, the difference of a day, a week or a month can make the difference between life and death. It takes courage for these veterans to stand up and ask for help, and they deserve better than to simply be told to stand in line.
Even though VA has hired thousands of additional mental health personnel in recent years, the department is still struggling to meet the increased demand for care created by a steady stream of returning veterans. This is undeniable proof that when it comes to stopping the epidemic of veteran suicides, it's not about how many people VA hires. It's about how many veterans they are able to help.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.