Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at VA Specialty Healthcare: Oversight of Women's Health, Mental Health, and Suicide Prevention, Whole Health and Homelessness Hearing

2021-03-12 11:42

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on VA Specialty Healthcare: Oversight of Women's Health, Mental Health, and Suicide Prevention, Whole Health and Homelessness:

Today we welcome back Dr. Kameron Matthews, Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Services at the Veterans Health Administration.

She is accompanied by:Dr. David Carroll, Executive Director of the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention at the Veterans Health Administration, Dr. Patricia Hayes, Chief Officer, Women’s Health, at the Veterans Health Administration, and Ms. Laura Duke, Chief Financial Officer at the Veterans Health Administration.

Today’s hearing will cover some of the areas of care at VA that are essential to veterans’ overall well-being.

Women’s health, mental health and suicide prevention, whole health, and homelessness are some of the program areas that this Committee has prioritized improving and expanding.

This hearing will give us a chance to receive an update on how those efforts are going, and what we should be looking to pursue in the coming fiscal year.

Of course, once the President’s budget is released, we will have the opportunity to dive further into the questions of future funding in these areas with the new Secretary when he comes before our committee.

But in addition to investing the resources to help these programs succeed, this Committee is also focused on oversight in each of these areas, and such oversight simply can’t wait.

There is too much work to be done to ensure that our veterans are receiving the services they need.

These programs all come together to help VA provide care and services in the comprehensive fashion that is required in order for veterans to achieve the best possible health outcomes.

All four programs received increases over the prior year in the recent FY21 appropriations act.

For example, the appropriations act enacted in December provided nearly $661 million for gender-specific care for women, a historic high that reflects the need to support the fastest-growing group of veterans.

In fact, women’s health at VA should not be considered “specialty” care, or a nice bonus in some facilities – it should be built into the system at a fundamental level and put into practice consistently across the VA health care system.

If we want to encourage women veterans to receive their care at VA facilities, we need those facilities to be properly staffed with women-specific health care providers and support teams, and to offer visible programs and services that address health care challenges facing women.

Women need equitable access to VA health care services and programs, but they also have unique needs and benefit from tailored programs.

Areas like maternity care, gynecological care, and treatment for gender-specific conditions and diseases have benefitted from an increased focus at VA, but I want to make sure that we keep making progress forward.

Likewise, we need to make greater progress with VA’s mental health and suicide prevention programs.

The rate of veterans dying by suicide is still deeply troubling, as it continues to remain stagnant, when it should be decreasing.

What also concerns me is that the data used in VA’s annual study is actually two years old. We are not even getting a full picture of the current state of veterans dying by suicide.

I know that VA has been applying several proactive approaches to try and reduce these numbers, such as seeking to keep veterans connected during their transition from active duty, identifying veterans at risk of suicide, and strengthening outreach and contacts to veterans.

I look forward to hearing more about these efforts and others underway to prevent suicide, as well as to make sure that every veteran who seeks out mental healthcare is getting it.

No one should be turned away from care, and we need to also make sure that care is of the highest quality.

We are committed to ensuring that resources are available to strengthen mental health programs and reach every veteran in need.

In Fiscal Year 2021, we provided more than $10 billion for mental health programs, and specifically directed funds toward suicide prevention.

These funds will help expand what’s working and target gaps in current efforts.

This is also why I’m so excited about the Whole Health program, which supports a model of care that goes beyond treating the physical symptoms of diseases, and works to personalize health care plans for veterans that consider the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental needs of veterans.

I am optimistic that this model can help with a wide variety of veteran health care challenges, like mental health, and I am glad that VA has also seen the potential in this program.

Finally, one of the most persistent challenges facing the VA is that of veteran homelessness.

VA has made notable progress, with the number of veterans experiencing homelessness declining by nearly half since 2010.

But there is still more to do, especially in light of the pandemic and its related challenges.

The CARES Act enabled VA to direct $971 million to help homeless veterans impacted by the pandemic, and also provided new authorities for VA to adapt its homelessness programs to this crisis.

The American Rescue Plan that passed earlier this week includes funding to ensure that VA has the resources needed to continue these efforts moving forward.

Pandemic or not, we must continue working to reduce veteran homelessness and prevent veterans from sliding back into homelessness.

All four of these programs are at critical junctures.

They will continue to be among our top priorities for ensuring veterans’ health, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about the work being done in these areas and what lies ahead.

117th Congress