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Bipartisan proposal could save veterans’ lives

When American men and women put on our nation’s uniform, they don’t fight for one political party or just some of the states. They fight for all of America. And that’s why it’s important for us to work together and find solutions to the most daunting challenge of our time: preventing veteran suicide.

Thankfully, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are trying to pass the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act, legislation that we at the Department of Veterans Affairs believe will provide a lifeline to veterans everywhere. It’s a plan that has the potential to finally help us reach the roughly 60% of veterans who die by suicide each day without any recent connection to VA care.

The proposal comes from Reps. Jack Bergman, of Michigan, and Chrissy Houlahan, of Pennsylvania, and Sens. John Boozman, of Arkansas, and Mark Warner, of Virginia. Introduced in the House of Representatives, the bill has almost an equal number of Republican and Democratic cosponsors, but we are concerned it faces an uncertain future in the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, led by Chairman Mark Takano.

Like most good ideas, the legislation is elegant in its simplicity. It recognizes a fact about suicide that we at the VA have known for some time now — the federal government by itself cannot prevent veterans from performing that last tragic act.

To make progress, the government needs to reach far beyond its walls and work with as many partners as we can. We need to work with veteran service organizations, caregivers and nonprofits at the state and local level who know these veterans, and know their stories. This isn’t about building up an army of federal workers. This is about finding ways to reach out to veterans in the communities where they live and work, through people and groups who know the most about what these veterans are going through and understand better than anyone when they might be at risk of hurting themselves.

And it’s about finding partners who can more quickly identify the risk factors that put veterans at risk, such as addiction, homelessness, or mental health.

The Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act would allow the VA to support each of those current and potential partners, and get veterans the help they need more quickly than ever before. It would do so by allowing the VA to offer direct grants to those organizations, and letting those groups use those resources to tailor aid to the veterans in their communities.

And it would allow the VA to make informed decisions about grant funding without adding new, unneeded layers of bureaucracy. How do we know we will have success with a decentralized plan such as this that relies on community engagement instead of big, expensive new layers of government?

One reason is that we have already had real success reducing veteran homelessness using the same approach. By reaching out to state and local partners, we’ve seen a steady decline in veteran homelessness — 78 communities and three states have effectively eliminated this problem, and we are adding new communities all the time.

Another reason is the changing reality of caring for veterans. Many live too far away from our brick-and-mortar health care facilities to get effective help, and will require help locally. Others may be struggling with the stigma of a condition that puts them at risk, and will be reluctant to seek help at the VA. Some may even have a distrust of government that keeps them away from the VA.

During the Civil War, in summertime, President Abraham Lincoln rode with injured Union troops as they were carted to hospitals north of the White House. He said once, in exasperation, “I am indeed surrounded, as is the whole country, by very trying circumstances.”

Veterans today face a different set of trying circumstances. But the answer is the same as it has always been — all of us, working together, will win this fight. We hope Chairman Takano will agree.

Robert Wilkie (@SecWilkie) is the 10th U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs.