Vets can get free emergency mental health care


Suicides among military veterans have been in decline over the past couple years, but today, a former soldier still takes his or her life every 85 minutes on average.

But now, veterans deemed to be in “acute suicidal crisis” can receive free emergency mental health services, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s help that includes up to 30 days of in-patient care, and three months outpatient.

Veterans can find that help at any VA or non-VA health care facility at no cost. They don’t even need to be enrolled in the VA system to use this benefit.

Part of the Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care and Treatment — or COMPACT — Act of 2020, the new rule allows veterans discharged after more than two years of service under conditions other than dishonorable are eligible for the care, which will either be paid for or reimbursed by the VA. The expanded care is meant to, “help prevent veteran suicide by guaranteeing no cost, world-class care to veterans in times of crisis,” according to a news release.

“Free or not free, the priority is getting them health care,” Pete Wenninger, immediate past commander of the East Meadow American Legion Post 1082, said. “The being burdened with a cost is not going to be helpful to them, but it is critical that when a veteran needs mental health, that they get it.”

The policy will provide, pay for, or reimburse for treatment of those who qualify for emergency suicide care, transportation costs, and follow-up care at a facility. It will also help veterans by making appropriate referrals while determining eligibility for other VA services and benefits.

“I think it was a great move,” said Ralph Esposito, director of the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency. “These kids coming home today from Iraq, Iran and everything, they got problems. And they’re hurting.”

The policy will also apply to former members of the armed forces, including reserve members, who served “more than 100 days under a combat exclusion or in support of a contingency operation.” It’s also open to those discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, who were the victim of sexual assault, sexual battery, or sexual harassment while serving.

“The need is more and more, that’s why the government — I believe — started this program,” Esposito said. “They see it. It’s happening all over. And we’re doing all we can to get them out.”

At the Nassau VSA in East Meadow, vets needing mental help are sent to speak with counselors that are right there for them, Esposito said. There’s also a food pantry if they’re hungry, and where they can pick up other supplies as well.

“It’s heartbreaking because they’re young,” he said. “It’s a big thing, but I’m really happy that they did this and that we have this program going.”

According to the National Veteran Suicide Prevention annual report, there were 6,146 veteran suicides in 2020 — down 5 percent from the year before, and “lower than each prior year since 2006.”

“Veterans have a hard time dealing with the military experience,” said Frank Salamino, quartermaster for the East Meadow Veterans of Foreign War Post 2736. “They have a very hard time. I know myself firsthand.

The new program is a step in the right direction for veteran care, Salamino added, but more needs to be done. Starting with talking to veterans before they leave the service about what they’re thinking and what they need.

And when they do get home and look for medical care from the government, appointments are hard to come by — oftentimes spread out with months in between.

“It took me a long time to get some help,” Salamino said.