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This article was originally published in the Daily Press on 07/17/2019

 

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner is, again, raising Cain over complications that have slowed construction of new veterans health centers in Virginia.

Two years have passed since Congress agreed to fund 28 veteran health facilities nationwide to address a deep backlog of patient wait times. 

Two facilities planned for veteran-rich Virginia, however, are some of the last on the list. 

It’s deeply unfair that Hampton Roads — a region that has given so much to the military — has been placed in the back of the line when it comes time for service members to receive care. 

Sen. Warner, D-Va., is demanding an expedited timeline for a facility planned for South Hampton Roads and another in Fredericksburg. 

The former facility will help ease the workload at the Hampton VA Medical Center, which had some of the longest wait times in the country in 2014. 

Once built, the South Hampton Roads center would include 155,000 square feet and offer primary and specialty care, plus day surgery and other services. 

Hampton VA staff have worked hard to change the way the facility approaches calls for services. Administrators are doing more to hire and retain health care staff while making operational adjustments that will, hopefully, reduce the center’s backlog. 

Yet, construction on the Southside center is being slowed by a tangled web of bureaucracy. 

The delay is due, in part, because of differences between Veterans Affairs, the U.S. General Services Administration and Congress concerning how the projects should be funded. 

The VA considers these projects as long-term leases, even if the ultimate goal is building new facilities. The Congressional Budget Office has said Congress should set aside larger sums of money for the projects upfront, rather than paying smaller amounts year by year. 

Sen. Warner and other lawmakers have tried negotiating a compromise that sets aside less money than recommended by the CBO in order to move the projects forward. 

A VA Office of Inspector General report released July 2 called for reforms in how the VA handles these projects. 

The report reviewed 24 VA projects authorized in 2014. So far, only two facilities are open, and it will take nearly two more years for the rest of the projects to come online. 

Neither the Hampton nor the Fredericksburg centers were included in the July 2 report because those were authorized in 2017, not 2014. However, recommendations about how to expedite the process in the report are considered applicable to the Virginia projects. 

And every person who cares about the military — especially the service members who are based in Hampton Roads — must be dissatisfied with how this process is unfolding. As lawmakers and administrators grapple in Washington, veterans in need of significant care are waiting without help. 

In December 2014, the Hampton VA had the longest wait time in the nation for primary care patients. 

The backlogs in Hampton Roads do not appear to be abating anytime soon, especially considering the veteran population is anticipated to grow nearly 22 percent from 2017 to 2027. 

The current state of affairs at the VA is clearly not working properly. 

Even veterans who appeal decisions involving disability benefits are facing a growing backlog that could exceed 1 million people within a decade. Without clear answers to the problem, veterans may have to wait an average of 8.5 years to have their appeals resolved. 

Walk around our region and doesn’t take too long to realize the military’s outsized presence here. 

Nearly 18 percent of Hampton Roads is comprised of veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure far outpaces any other region in Virginia and it is one of the densest populations of veterans anywhere in the country. 

We must become a priority. 

Sen. Warner has sent a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie as well as the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration Emily W. Murphy, demanding the agencies present a plan to speed up the completion of these Virginia facilities. 

Consider contacting the VA at www.va.gov or GSA www.gsa.gov to let them know how important the service members and veterans are to Hampton Roads. 

Their well-being is a standard of how we treat this entire community. And the current state of affairs will not be accepted.

This story originally appeared on WUSA9 on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.

WASHINGTON — A Virginia senator wants answers from the Department of Justice. Wednesday, Mark Warner sent a letter demanding an in-person meeting about a new system that is supposed to save lives across the country. An Amber Alert notifies the public if a child is missing; a Silver Alert notifies the public if a senior is missing. But there was nothing for those in the age gap in between who vanish.

Then, a new law was signed, which created an alert for adults who are missing an endangered. That was more than six months ago. The feds still haven't implemented the Ashanti Alert system.

On September 18, 2017, Ashanti Billie was abducted from a Virginia Naval base. At 19, she was too old for an amber alert and too young for a silver alert. Ashanti was found murdered across state lines in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“The Ashanti Alert Act isn’t' the first time,” Ashanti’s mom, Brandy Billie, told us. “There have been other bills people have tried to get pushed for their loved ones before in years past. For various reasons nothing came of it. Had something came of those, it could have saved our daughter.”

So Brandy and Ashanti’s father, Meltony Billie lobbied Congress to create a notification system for adults who might be in danger and fall into that age gap. Their efforts paid off, when the Ashanti Alert was signed into law on New Year's Eve 2018.

“We just want to help save someone else's loved one -- their mother, father, sister, brother, whoever it is,” Brandy explained.

But they told WUSA9 in reality, the loophole hasn't been fixed because that system isn't operational yet.

“We're wasting time,” Brandy said.

The Billies believe wasting time in this case, could cost lives. They're known now across the country. They’ve become a support system of sorts for others whose loved ones go missing.

“We get texts and we get phone calls and we get emails like 'I'm in this situation, what do I do,'” Meltony described. “You can really only give them words of comfort, but our desire is to do more.”

“To know that there's something in place, a law that could save this person and maybe bring them home, it's heartbreaking all over again because you want to be able to tell that person 'this is in place, this can help you' but it hasn't moved forward yet,” Brandy lamented. “It's not available for you.”

Virginia Senator Mark Warner helped push through the legislation.

“I'm disappointed the Justice Department hasn't gone ahead and implemented this alert,” he told WUSA9.

Wednesday morning, he followed up with this letter demanding an in-person meeting. He wrote he hasn't been able to get "appropriate answers."

“I'm going to stay on them until this system goes live and everyone knows that if someone is disappeared or goes missing, there's the ability for the family then to put them on this alert system,” Warner added. “So we can involve the community in trying to find these disappeared persons.”

WUSA9 tried for weeks to get answers from DOJ, as well. We asked where the Ashanti Alert Act implementation stands, is there a timeline and what are the hold-ups?

We finally got a response. A spokesperson said so far they've identified a program coordinator and assembled an internal working group. But, "there is no set timeline for implementation."

“To get a 'there's not a timeline,' are you serious,” Meltony reacted. “Lives can continue to come up missing. Families can continue to hurt. Families can continue to suffer, just ‘whenever we feel it is time for them to stop suffering, then we'll do something.’”

Virginia did something quickly. Officials enacted a state version of the alert, and three months later, State Police sent out the first one. Since then, they've sent out a handful more. In half of the cases, the victims were found alive in about 24 hours. All were abductions.

DOJ said it is examining how this new system can be created based on existing ones.  

“We don't have to reinvent the wheel,” Brandy questioned. “It's already there.”

In the meantime, the Billies feel this is about much more than a delay in their daughter's legacy.

“Of course it's always going to be about Ashanti, but it's not going to bring her back, and it's our desire to make sure that no one else has to suffer what we've gone through,” Meltony added.

Warner's letter asked for a briefing with key people responsible for the next steps. We don't know yet if the agency will do that and when it might be.

Meanwhile, Ashanti’s accused abductor and killer remains in a federal medical center. There are concerns about Eric Brown’s mental capacity.

Doctors for the federal Bureau of Prisons determined Brown is not yet competent to stand trial. He is currently committed at the Butner Federal Medical Center. Evaluators are supposed to update the judge on Brown’s condition no later than Thursday.

Right now, the court order for commitment at Butner only goes through July 18, 2019. In the past, orders have been extended while staff works to restore Brown’s competency.

Until that happens, Brown’s trial is on hold.

All the good jobs in America are at risk of going to a handful of cities, but there’s still time to stop it
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
in CNBC

The truth is, the opportunity to earn a good life through hard work is moving out of reach for too many Americans. As someone who has benefited greatly from our free enterprise system as an entrepreneur, I recognize that modern American capitalism just isn’t working for enough people in this country.

Over the last 50 years, globalization, automation and disruptive technologies have both destroyed and created millions of jobs. But the benefits have not been spread evenly. The result is an inequality of opportunity, with new, good-paying jobs increasingly concentrated in a handful of urban centers, available to a small, skilled workforce that does not represent the racial, geographic and socioeconomic diversity of our country.

Workers now face not only historic income inequality but great income insecurity due to the growing threat of their jobs being automated, outsourced or eliminated in the next round of corporate mergers. These problems are only made worse by companies that put short-term profits ahead of long-term growth — prioritizing mergers and acquisitions over investments in their physical and human capital.

Unfortunately, the temptation for policymakers is to treat the symptoms of inequality when what we really need is a new economic model to prepare Americans for work in the 21st century.

Let’s address the issue of income insecurity and recognize that many folks aren’t working one job for their entire career or even one job at a time. We need federal and local government to experiment with industry to develop a portable benefits system to follow workers from job to job and gig to gig.

We also need to think big. We need real bipartisan tax reform that rewards hard work and investments in American workers. Now, if a company buys a new robot to replace its workers, that’s an asset. If the company invests in training its workers, that’s an expense. Let’s fix that. While we’re at it, let’s replicate the success of the R&D tax credit and give companies an incentive to train low- and moderate-income workers to help them climb the economic ladder.

We need to do this if we are serious about closing a skills gap that will only get worse with automation. One recent study found that by the year 2030, up to one-third of American workers will need to retrain or change jobs to keep up with disruptions due to automation and a changing economy. We need to radically change our approach to job training in this country, from investments in community and technical colleges, to apprenticeship programs, to savings accounts that aid in lifelong learning.

The American dream might feel like it’s fading away. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Done right, we can rebalance the economic scales a little more in favor of American workers while nurturing the competitive spirit that built the U.S. economy into the dominant global force it is today.

By Sen. Mark R. Warner

It isn’t rocket science. When you have to ride the bus an hour round-trip just to buy fresh vegetables, you eat fewer fresh vegetables. When the grocery store is a two-mile walk, but the fast food restaurant or corner store that only sells processed foods are just down the street, you’re probably going to end up eating more processed foods. Unfortunately, this is the daily reality for an estimated 39 million Americans who live in “food deserts” — areas with no grocery stores within one or more miles in urban regions, and 10 or more miles in rural regions. Here in Hampton Roads, approximately 400,000 thousand people live in food deserts.

Urban food deserts are often found in lower-income communities and communities of color. Individuals who live in these communities with low access to healthy food options are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

I don’t think it’s right that, in the richest country in the world, a person’s ZIP code should be a sentence to a lifetime of poor nutrition and the health problems that go with it. Families in Virginia deserve reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live. That’s why I introduced legislation to help end food deserts here in Virginia and around the country.

This bipartisan legislation would spark investment in food deserts across the country by providing tax credits or grants to providers who open a new store or retrofit an existing store to offer more fresh foods.

A big part of the challenge is convincing grocers to take a chance on investing in a neighborhood that may be lower income and may not have had a grocery store for many years. My bill would provide a one-time tax credit to help grocers “get to yes” on investing in food desert neighborhoods.

But while bringing more grocery stores to food deserts is an important part of the solution, it can’t be our only approach. There is likely no single silver bullet to ending food deserts and the problems associated with them. Just putting some organic produce on the shelf won’t be enough on its own to change nutritional habits in communities where fresh foods have been scarce for many years.

That’s where community organizations and food banks are absolutely essential. Across the country, community organizations are experimenting with mobile food markets and other solutions that reintroduce fresh produce directly into food deserts. This legislation would also support these innovative efforts.

Hampton Roads is surrounded by some of the best sources of fresh food — the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay. We need to rebuild the connections between farmers and the communities that eat their food.

This legislation may not end food deserts once and for all. But that doesn’t mean the federal government shouldn’t use its resources to help solve a problem that affects millions of Americans and contributes to serious, but preventable, health problems.

I reject the notion that only those who can afford a car or a house near a grocery store deserve access to healthy food. If we have the tools to help military families, people of color or people with lower incomes get better access to healthy foods, then we should use them.

The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act takes these tools that we have — tax credits to help build grocery stores or expand their healthy food sections, grants for food banks and mobile food options — and it puts them to work.

This a solvable problem. It’s time for Congress to do its part and empower communities to end food deserts.

This article was originally published in the Progress-Index on 04/27/2019

FORT LEE — Saying it makes him “angry beyond words” to hear of less-than-desirable living conditions in on-post private housing, Sen. Mark R. Warner called for urgency Thursday in holding the builders of those residences accountable for cleaning and maintaining them.

Warner, D-Va., is co-sponsoring legislation that would increase oversight of those builders who have contracts with military installations to build the dwellings. He came to Fort Lee Thursday afternoon to meet with some of the homeowners and see some of the problems they are facing. Among the issues he saw and heard about were concerns about mold, infestations and overall miscommunication with the builders.

Earlier this year, the Military Family Advisory Network conducted preliminary research via survey and interviews regarding the quality of living in privatized military housing in the U.S. and published the findings in February. According to the report, of 16,779 responses, more than half indicated that they had negative or very negative experiences with privatized military housing. The respondents listed 35 property management companies. Common areas of concern included mold exposure, pest infestation, and structurally unsound homes, while the families felt like their concerns were being ignored. In some cases, the reports finds, families had to threaten legal action or medical impact for their situations to be remediated.

Of those responses, 18% came from families who live in housing maintained by Hunt Military Communities, the company that holds the contract with Fort Lee. Hunt has contracts with several other military installations, and the report did not specifically mention Fort Lee by name.

Amber Machado led Warner on a tour of the home she shares with her husband, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Machado and their young child. She showed him an ant infestation and algae growth on the exterior of the home, and four different types of flooring, evidence of damage to the walls from previous residents, and repairs that had been made well after they moved into their “move-in ready” home.

Amber Machado said they have expressed these and many other grievances to Hunt. For example, when the Machados went to have their washer installed, the laminate flooring adhesive that was already not installed properly was further exposed.

“Hunt’s solution to that was to clean it up with Magic Eraser,” said Nicholas Machado.

At the home of Staff Sgt. Brian Santos and his wife, Patricia, the senator was met with photo evidence of damages to the house. Patricia Santos said she noticed buckling in her floors in September 2018, caused by a leak that spread to her living room. In addition to the floors desperately needing replacement, the leak provided an ideal environment for mold growth, which she tried to get fixed as well.

“The contractor that they sent was not licensed or certified in the remediation of mold,” said Patricia Santos. “No plastic was ever placed around the area. When he lifted the flooring, the mold went everywhere: it went into my couches, into my carpets, onto my dining room table and into my kitchen.”

“It was September 2018 when we noticed the mold. [Hunt] did not finally fix everything until the sixth of April,” said Santos.

Warner, along with Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, has introduced the Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act in March, in an effort to address the hazards present in privatized military housing. According to a press release by the senator regarding the announcement of the bill, provisions of the bill include basic allowance for housing costs and additional transparency for service members, creating “stronger oversight mechanisms, allow the military to withhold payments to contractors until issues are resolved.”

Immediately following the home tour, Warner held a roundtable to hear more from families about their living conditions.

The roundtable led to other military members expressing their issues with Hunt ranging from maintenance members coming in to make repairs without notice, to miscommunications within Hunt’s offices resulting in the military member not having any housing, to infants being hospitalized for respiratory issues due to mold. Throughout the meeting, Warner articulated his sympathy with the servicemembers and frustration with the private housing companies that often have lengthy contracts with the military bases and provide inadequate service.

“If I was living in a home with mold and had no recourse, it makes me angry beyond words.” Warner said. “We will make the systemic change, but if some of these folks have to go back with young kids to sleep tonight in a house with mold, there has to be this sense of urgency to get this changed.”

Warner’s stop at Fort Lee was part of a two-day visit to the Richmond area that included a walkthrough of the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, where evidence of a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog across the entire National Park Service manifests, as more than $700,000 in overdue maintenance needs have not been addressed. 

Keeping our promise to Virginia's miners
By Sen. Mark R. Warner 
In the Bristol Herald Courier

Standing up for our retired miners and their families has brought coal state Republicans and Democrats together in the past. Now, once again, it’s time for representatives from both parties to put partisanship aside and go to bat for Virginia’s miners — before it’s too late.

Earlier this year, a federal court allowed the Westmoreland Coal Co., which operated the Bullitt Mine in Wise County, to sever its United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) union contracts with current and former workers. Now, more than 1,200 miners and their dependents around the country, including some 500 here in Virginia, stand to lose their pensions and health care coverage.

Frankly, it’s a disgrace that a company can go to court and leave its workers out in the cold, so that the company’s creditors can continue to get paid. We do need to reform our bankruptcy system, but right now my main concern is making sure these miners and their families don’t lose their hard-earned benefits. While these miners have reached a temporary settlement with Westmoreland to extend their health care benefits for a few months, the fact is, they will be left with nothing if Congress does not act soon.

That’s why I’ve teamed up with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to introduce the American Miners Act. This bill would preserve the Westmoreland miners’ pensions and health benefits by making them eligible for benefits under the Coal Act fund — a program for “orphan” miners whose companies are no longer operating.

These are hard working men and women who have endured years of back-breaking work in order to fuel the economic success of our Commonwealth. Now it’s time for the federal government to deliver on the promise it made to our miners.

In 1946, the federal government, under President Truman, made a promise to protect the hard-earned retirement and health care benefits of UMWA miners — to honor their hard work and sacrifice.

This landmark agreement gave America’s miners the security they needed and deserved. Since that time, they’ve worked hard and done everything that has been asked of them.

Now it’s time for the federal government to hold up its end of the bargain — for the Westmoreland miners, and for the thousands of UMWA retirees whose pensions are still in jeopardy.

We are coming up on the two-year anniversary of our bipartisan victory securing healthcare benefits for more than 22,000 miners and their families. This was an important win for coal country, but our work is not done yet. The pensions our miners have earned are still on the chopping block, and recent coal company bankruptcies like Westmoreland’s threaten the progress we’ve made so far.

Passing the American Miners Act will make sure that miners’ healthcare benefits and pensions will be protected going forward.

We also need to recognize that both UMWA and non-union miners across Virginia have experienced hardships, as their families have lost hard-earned benefits. All Virginia miners and their families deserve to be treated fairly and receive the benefits they have earned during their career as miners.

One of the ways we can do this is by making sure we preserve resources for those miners who have developed black lung disease. The American Miners Act strengthens the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides critical benefits for thousands of retirees suffering from this deadly disease. Coal miners in Southwest Virginia have been some of the hardest hit by black lung, and Virginia is ground zero for the recent outbreak of advanced cases of the disease known as complicated black lung.

Unfortunately, Congressional Republican leadership allowed a key funding source for the trust fund to expire in December. If we fail to restore funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, miners struggling with this debilitating disease may not have access to the high-quality care they deserve, beginning as soon as next year.

It’s far past time to fix this problem. Our miners have paid their dues and earned their benefits. Now it’s our turn to secure their healthcare and pensions and shore up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

The President campaigned on a promise to take care of our coal miners, and frankly, so did I. Now is the time for us all to leave our Republican and Democrat hats at the door and work together to get this done. The federal government must not turn its back on a generation of miners who risked their lives and health to fuel our nation.

 

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on 04/10/2019

Two U.S. senators unveiled new legislation Tuesday targeting what they say are deceptive tricks, employed by websites and tech companies, that are designed to mislead or confuse Internet users into giving away their rights and choices as consumers.

The bill is another salvo in a widening congressional effort to rein in the tech industry, whose data breaches and other privacy mishaps have prompted calls for tougher regulation of Silicon Valley.

The legislation, known as the DETOUR Act and introduced by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), zeroes in on a phenomenon known as “dark patterns”: The various ways in which Web designers subtly steer users toward completing certain transactions, such as signing up for an email newsletter, making a purchase or consenting to the collection or sharing of personal information.

The rise of dark patterns reflects how tech companies have increasingly turned human psychology into a moneymaking tool — at the expense of consumers’ ability to make truly informed choices, Fischer said in a statement.

“Misleading prompts to just click the ‘OK’ button can often transfer your contacts, messages, browsing activity, photos, or location information without you even realizing it,” she said.

On Tuesday, Warner launched into a series of tweets showing how dark patterns are commonly found across the Internet.

But dark patterns, and the logic behind them, are hardly a new idea. More than a decade ago, University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein helped shed light on the psychological aspects of decision-making with their 2008 book “Nudge.”

The book explored how “choice architecture,” or the way in which choices are presented to consumers, can powerfully shape their subsequent behavior. Examples included how, by automatically enrolling their employees in a 401(k), companies could help increase Americans’ retirement savings.

How companies ask consumers to make choices online is becoming increasingly important as more firms turn to personal data as a business model, analysts say. Nowhere is that more evident than in the tech industry, where giants such as Facebook and Google have built multibillion-dollar products out of the data that’s generated when users click on ads and enter search terms.

Without naming those businesses in particular, Tuesday’s bill appears to focus on the largest tech companies, aiming to make it illegal for firms with more than 100 million users to create user interfaces "with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision-making, or choice to obtain consent or user data.”

Under the proposal, tech companies would also be required to set up independent review boards akin to those on college campuses that oversee human research studies, in order to perform testing on user engagement.

“Our choice architectures are just completely muddled and clouded by the little tricks companies play to get you to consent, even though you may not want to,” said Paul Ohm, a law professor at Georgetown University, at a Washington conference on digital privacy Tuesday hosted by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Internet Association, a trade group that represents Silicon Valley’s biggest firms in Washington, declined to comment.

This editorial was originally published in the Daily Press on 03/25/2019

Despite the public reverence our country displays for the military, a quiet crisis continues to linger that must be better addressed: Veterans continue to die by their own hand.

Even a handful of suicides each year would be too many. The real figure — more than 6,000 annually — is a haunting realization this country must continue to address mental health issues that persist among our nation’s military personnel, regardless of the visibility of the wars they 

A concerted public health approach developed and implemented through public and private partners at the national, state and community levels is needed to tackle this complex problem.

The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act would be one solution toward that goal.

The legislation wending its way through Congress seeks to improve care by bolstering the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce, increasing rural access to care and ensuring veterans have improved access to alternative treatment options such as animal therapy, outdoor sports, yoga and acupuncture.

The bill has bipartisan support that includes Virginia’s Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine as well as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.

The legislation is named after Commander John Scott Hannon, a retired Navy SEAL from Montana who took his own life following a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If approved, the bill would give the VA direct hiring authority over some mental health job categories and offer scholarships to mental health professionals as a way to entice them to work at veterans centers.

At least one suicide prevention coordinator would be placed at every VA hospital nationwide.

Veterans living in rural areas would be given greater access to telehealth services — where they can reach a medical professional over the phone or via a live chat — and provide grants to medical professionals to provide mental health services to veterans.

Innovative and alternative treatment options — such as access to animal, outdoor, or agri-therapy, yoga, meditation and acupuncture — would all be funded.

And ultimately, the VA would be held to greater account for the quality of services it provides, taking into account the wait times and red tape that can frustrate the people who seek care in such facilities.

We must help reduce veterans’ risk for suicide before those men and women feel they have exhausted their options and reached a crisis point.

Expansive networks that can reach veterans where they are will help bring desperate service members back from the brink.

These expanded programs will save lives if they are implemented correctly. That’s all we could ask for — services that are reliable and can address the individual needs of each veteran that has considered or attempted suicide.

These service members have performed countless duties to save our lives, and now we must do everything we can to save theirs.

An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide every day, even though their population has steadily decreased throughout the past decade. Of those deaths, 14 have received no treatment or care from the VA. That needs to change.

If you are a veteran considering suicide, please make a free, anonymous call to any Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone.

Or send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder.

Begin a confidential online chat session at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat or find a VA facility near you by visiting bit.ly/vafacilitiesnearby.

A bounty of other resources can be found at veteranscrisisline.net.

Or, in you live on the Peninsula, consider visiting the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center which operates a walk-in mental health clinic for any veteran in need of immediate help.

Veterans have given their time and talents to protecting this country. This country must show them just how treasured they are by keeping mental health services at the forefront of our consciousness.

This legislation will expand and bolster veterans services, but that does not mean veterans need to wait for it to pass before seeking help.

Now is the best time to take that initial step to speak with a mental health professional. It’s a path well worth the walk.

This Editorial was originally published in the Daily Progress on 03/22/2019

A suicide-prevention coordinator at every VA hospital.

Given reports on the number of military veterans who take their own lives under the burdens of their mental and emotional injuries, such a basic level of care seems an obvious necessity.

But it isn’t a mandate. Not yet.

Virginia’s senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, are among the sponsors of legislation to improve the Veterans Administration’s response to mental health needs and suicide prevention.

The legislation, cosponsored with Sen Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, would help the VA add more mental health experts, increase access to care in rural areas, and expand access to “non-traditional” therapy options such as yoga and animal therapy — although we might argue that these modalities have been around long enough, and have proved effective enough, to no longer be considered as “alternative” treatments.

"We need to focus on new measures and new strategies in promoting mental health among veterans," Mr. Kaine said recently at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

And not just new measures and strategies, but also additional staff to implement these strategies. The legislation would authorize the VA to hire more mental health professionals, and would place at least one suicide-prevention coordinator in every hospital. Access to mental health for veterans in rural areas would be addressed by expanding VA telehealth services.

The legislation also seeks to hold the VA accountable for how it provides care and how it manages its resources.

Suicide is a tragic and disturbing underside of veterans affairs. An oft-quoted statistic had been that, on average, 20 U.S. veterans daily took their own lives. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs clarified that figure, saying that it referred to veterans, active-duty and other personnel combined.

The 2018 report cites the total as 20.6 suicides per day. Of these, 16.8 were veterans and 3.8 were active-duty service members, guardsmen and reservists, according to Stars and Stripes. That means 6,132 veterans and 1,387 service members die by suicide per year.

That number is shocking — and far, far too high.

“We’ve got to make sure that service members who’ve faithfully served our country receive the support they need when they transition to civilian life,” Mr. Warner said in a press statement.

And that sums it up well: America’s military men and women have given so much to serve our country, keep us safe at home and protect our nation’s interests abroad.

Indeed, those who have returned have sometimes given up almost everything in sacrifice — including their physical, mental and emotional health. If their trauma is so severe that it compels them to end their own lives just to escape the suffering, then they have given everything.

The nation owes them gratitude for their service, gratitude for their sacrifice — but it owes them much more. It owes them effective care, therapy, treatment and support to help them make the often difficult transition back into healthy living and civilian life.

The new veterans’ legislation strives to do just that. We support it.