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Joyce Endee

Hassan focuses on veteran health


October 29, 2020
REGION — In August, Sen. Maggie Hassan cosponsored bipartisan legislation to increase veteran access to mental health care and suicide prevention. The bill passed unanimously in the US Senate and Hassan hosted a virtual roundtable last week with New Hampshire veteran healthcare leaders.

Military suicides have increased by approximately 20 percent in 2020, with the National Guard seeing a 30.6 percent rate. It has become a national crisis for veterans, and some estimates indicate that more veterans die by suicide every two days than were killed in action last year.

Social distancing requirements and increased isolation during the pandemic have heightened the need for lawmakers to find solutions.

"We all grapple with the pandemic, but our veterans, in particular, are having some significant and unique challenges. Everything from unemployment to isolation has magnified the kinds of challenges veterans face," noted the Senator.

Hassan introduced legislation last month to strengthen the Veteran Administration's existing "Solid Start" program, which helps newly separated service members transition back into civilian life in the first year.

"We'll hear from veterans that they weren't quite sure whether they qualified for different benefits. The VA started this program and we want to make sure it never gives up on it," she stated.

The Senator is currently working on more legislation to address the high rate of unemployment among veterans due to the pandemic. If passed, the bill would help retrain veterans for in-demand jobs and provide them with critical financial support such as tuition and housing stipends.

While many have struggled with reliable broadband and access to telehealth services in the North Country, it has been particularly challenging for NH veterans. In August, the US Senate unanimously passed the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which bolsters the VA's mental health workforce and increases rural or hard-to-reach veterans' access to mental health care.

According to VA Telehealth Chief Nancy Falleur, the organization has distributed loaner iPads to veterans to connect with health professionals via video chat. She said the biggest challenge has been for people unfamiliar with technology.

"At the VA, 55 percent of the veterans have face-to-face visits, 25 percent are using the telephone and 20% use the video connect option. It's been around for a while, but COVID-19 pushed us to a place where we started using it and we've seen a great increase in the numbers," noted Falleur.

Veteran and First Responder (VFR) Healthcare CEO Eric Golnick said, "We've seen that veterans are not only enjoying telehealth options, they like it. With the suicide pandemic that we have right now, as well as COVID-19, this is a disease of isolation. So as quickly as we can connect with folks and the more we can connect with telehealth therapy, it's working well on our end."

VFR Strategic Partnership Director Dalton McLaughlin agreed.

He said, "Telehealth-based medicine is an incredible benefit for veterans. We can reach more people without them having to come all the way to where we are located, particularly the older population that is already at risk."

While all the roundtable participants agreed that organizational solidarity among the private and state sectors would help brace for a "tsunami" of increased suicide numbers.

Golnick said, "Veterans do well in crisis and under stress, so I'm not worried about right now. What I'm worried about is once things start calming down. Once vets lose purpose, that's when they start running into trouble."

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