NewsBytes July 1, 2022      

In this issue:
HVAC Subcommittee Reviews Suicide Prevention Efforts
VA Homelessness Program
House NDAA Prohibits Chinese Products in Commissaries and Exchanges
DoD Responding to Chemical Contamination
FRA NHQ Closed on Independence Day

HVAC Subcommittee Reviews Suicide Prevention Efforts
The House Veterans Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing to review President Biden’s strategy to reduce veteran suicide by addressing economic risk factors. Increasingly, the public health approach to suicide prevention in the U.S. has widened to address a person’s entire set of circumstances, beyond simply looking at it as a mental health issue. 

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Levin (Calif.) cited recent research showing that directly addressing food insecurity can decrease suicidal ideation. Another study reveals that raising the minimum wage by $1 can decrease the suicide rate across a population. Veterans with legal problems are at an elevated risk of suicide, but research examining these issues has been limited.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Moore (Ala.) said stressors on all Americans are growing, and veterans are not immune. The suicide rate among veterans in his state is higher than the rest of the country, and significantly higher than among civilians. The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs created a talent initiative to combat the stigma related to mental health needs. They provided information about obtaining help, as well as employment opportunities through things such as job fairs. 

He called upon the VA and other agencies to re-examine every economic program they administer to ensure they are meeting veterans’ needs in a time of rising inflation. He expressed disappointment that the written testimony submitted by witnesses simply regurgitated the programs currently offered. He wants hard evidence that these programs are actually reducing rates of suicide. Moore called for reducing the stigma against asking for mental health care and help. “It is really okay not to be okay,” he said.

The FRA supports improvements of VA and Defense Department suicide prevention programs to reduce the rate of suicide among veterans and active-duty service members.  The Department of Veterans Affairs recently released its 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. The report shows a decrease from 2018 to 2019 in the total number of veteran suicide deaths (6 percent) and a decrease in the rate of veteran suicides. Specifically, the VA reported that there were 6,261 veteran suicide deaths in 2019 — 399 fewer than in 2018. Of the 17 veterans who died by suicide per day on average in 2019, approximately ten of them had no recent interaction with the VA health care system. The data also revealed that the female veteran suicide rate decreased by almost 13 percent, which is the largest rate decrease for female veterans in 17 years.

Veterans ages 18 to 34 experience a higher rate of suicide than all other age brackets of veterans. The suicide rate for young veterans increased by 76 percent from 2005 to 2017, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. A growing number of these veterans never experienced combat. 

VA Homelessness Program
At a recent press conference, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary McDonough discussed efforts to eliminate veteran homelessness. VA Secretary McDonough stated, “no veteran should ever be homeless,” and thanked the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the $365 million package of resources recently released. 

Monica Diaz, Executive Director of the VA’s Homeless Programs Office, reported that veteran homelessness has declined by nearly 50 percent since 2010, and the VA has helped more than 950,000 veterans and their family members become permanently housed. “Our strategies are working,” she said, thanks to the dedication of VA employees and veterans’ resiliency. Diaz explained the VA takes a “housing first” approach to the issue. This means the veteran does not need to be “ready” for housing or enter treatment before being housed. Instead, VA provides a home, then wraps treatment and other support services around the veteran. 

She described the various VA programs to help veterans. However, she said, every citizen can play a role in combating veterans’ homelessness. She asked the media to spread the word those services exist, and to encourage veterans to reach out for help. Diaz also called upon employers to open their doors and to give veterans a chance. The VA’s goal is to place at least 38,000 veterans into permanent housing by the end of this year. That is almost the total number of veterans who were reported as homeless in the 2020 Point in Time count. 

When asked, McDonough said he is “enthusiastic” about the PACT Act, which is expected to pass the House soon. The Secretary stressed the importance of providing service presumptions to make it easier for veterans to gain access to health care and benefits. McDonough said the new legislation, which now goes to the President to be enacted into law, provides a “generational opportunity to increase access to VA benefits and to VA care.”

House NDAA Prohibits Chinese Products in Commissaries and Exchanges
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) markup of the FY2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-H.R.7900) was amended to prohibit commissaries and exchanges from selling products made in China. Rep. Mark Green (Tenn.), the amendment sponsor believes it “makes sense” to not sell products made in China in military commissaries and exchanges. He argued that this should be done not just because they are a major economic and military adversary, but China is also guilty of human rights abuses. 

HASC Chairman Adam Smith (Wash.) and others said they understand the sentiment behind the amendment. However, they said, it is simply not practical to remove everyday items from the shelves because so much is produced in China. This would have an especially detrimental impact upon service members and families based in remote areas where off-base shopping opportunities are sparse. 

Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.) argued that consumer products and food are more safely made in the United States. She cited melamine found in baby formula as well as lead in children’s toys.  The amendment passed on a voice vote. 

DoD Responding to Chemical Contamination
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently updated drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, also known as “forever chemicals.” Based on new science indicating even the tiniest levels of these chemicals in drinking water can cause health problems, the new levels are “near zero,” according to an EPA statement. 

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) have been linked with a variety of health effects, including decreased birth weights, suppressed vaccine response in children (by lowering the concentration of serum antibodies), increased breast and other cancer incidence, and other issues. 

The Department of Defense (DoD) has been dealing with PFOA/PFOS contamination at military installations around the country, including National Guard and Reserve installations. Military-grade firefighting foam, until recently, used both chemicals. In recent years, Congress has required DoD to stop using those foams and to find alternatives. 

HASC chair Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.) released a statement that the EPA move “underscores just how dangerous” these chemicals are for local communities as well as those in the military and their families. He stressed the importance of Congress conducting “rigorous oversight” of DoD’s response. 

The FY2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-H.R.7900) has several provisions concerning cleaning up the chemicals around military installations. There is also a call for all medical providers caring for DoD beneficiaries to be trained on the health effects of these chemicals. HASC chairman Rep. Smith (WA) released a statement that the EPA move “underscores just how dangerous” these chemicals are for local communities as well as those in the military and their families. He stressed the importance of Congress conducting “rigorous oversight” of DoD’s response. The FY 2023 Defense appropriations bill approved by the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (HAC-Def) includes $15 million for a study to assess the health effects of these chemicals in drinking water.

FRA NHQ Closed on Independence Day
FRA’s National Headquarters (NHQ) offices will be closed on Monday, July 4, in observance of Independence Day. Congress is also in recess next week and the next issue of NewsBytes will be July 15, 2022. The NHQ staff wishes all FRA shipmates a safe and enjoyable 4th of July.

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