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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Association of Drug Court Professionals:
1st Annual Veterans Treatment Court Conference
Washington, DC
December 2, 2013

Good morning, everyone. I am honored to address this inaugural conference of Veterans Treatment Courts professionals.

Let me begin by thanking General Barry McCaffrey for his many years of leadership in uniform, in government, and in business. He and I have known each other a long time—since our days at West Point. Barry McCaffrey is, without question, the best combat commander to have come out of my generation of Soldiers. So, Barry, thanks for that generous introduction. I'm honored.

My thanks, as well, to West Huddleston, your CEO, and the other members of NADCP for inviting me here today.

Let me further acknowledge:

  • Judge Robert Russell—I still vividly remember my visit to your courtroom in Buffalo in 2009. It's good to see you again;
  • Other members of the judiciary, drug court professionals, Veteran mentors who make these courts innovative and successful; fellow Veterans; VA colleagues; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen:

We all know, you better than I, that you are guiding monumental change in the way we address crime in this country. Instead of either jailing Veterans, who have been brought up on charges, or releasing them back to the streets, you have underwritten treatment as a powerful option for dealing with those who have broken our laws. My thanks to the NADCP for helping us all through this ambitious undertaking.

The number of Veterans courts has grown over the past five years. There were perhaps four or five of them in January 2009 when I arrived to assume my duties. At Barry McCaffrey's urging, I visited Judge Russell's courtroom early in 2009. The power of the Veterans court concept was clear, undeniable, and compelling. Since that visit, VA has been your full partner, agreeing to bring all of its capabilities to bear, wherever a judge is willing to establish a Veterans court.

Last month, VA's Justice Outreach Specialists reported 257 Veterans courts in operation throughout this country—an increase of nearly 90 this year alone, with another dozen or so slated to open before year's end. My thanks and congratulations to all of you for what you are doing for Veterans in this country.

In my opinion, we will never be able to do enough for the men and women who have signed on to safeguard our way of life. Veterans comprise just over 7 percent of the entire population of this great country—22.2 million of them live amongst us. Today, less than 1 percent of Americans wear our country's uniforms. You know, we ended the draft 40 years ago, and these are the men and women who picked that load up for all of us—these are the folks who guarantee our vibrant democracy.

Of our 22 million living Veterans, less than nine million are enrolled in VA healthcare, and nearly 58,000 are estimated to be homeless on any given night. I am told that incarceration is the number one predictor of homelessness. And I am also told that there is a nexus among factors that describe both Veterans' homelessness and Veterans' suicides—depression, insomnia, substance use disorder, pain, failed relationships. If we are going to break the cycle between incarceration and homelessness, we will have to raise our level of collaboration and leverage all our assets to address these factors, which seem so pervasive when dealing with troubled Veterans—depression, insomnia, substance use disorder, pain, failed relationships.

Addressing these factors requires VA's collaboration with a host of partners: I would start with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness; the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Justice, Defense, Health and Human Services, Education; the IRS; the Social Security and Small Business Administrations; as well as a number of other federal, state, and local agencies and organizations. Veterans are counting on us to solve these challenges.

VA operates a large integrated healthcare system, perhaps the largest in the country: 151 medical centers, 827 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 Vet Centers, and 70 outreach and mobile clinics that deliver healthcare to the most remote of our rural Veterans—over 1,700 healthcare access points nationwide.

But beyond healthcare,

  • VA provides $10 billion in educational benefits annually—second only to the Department of Education;
  • VA guarantees nearly 1.8 million home loans—the only zero-down entity in the Nation. Our foreclosure rate is the lowest in all categories of mortgage loans;
  • VA is the Nation's 9th largest life insurance enterprise with $1.3 trillion in coverage, 6.7 million clients, and a 95 percent client satisfaction rating.

Through the leadership of the President, the support of the Congress, the advice and assistance of Veteran Service Organizations, and our partnership with a host of federal, state, and non-profit organizations, like NADCP, progress since 2009 includes—

  • A 50 percent growth in VA's budget requests from $99.8 billion to $152.7 billion in FY 2014;
  • Enrollment of over 2 million more Veterans in VA healthcare, 62 new community-based outpatient clinics opened, including our first major VA hospital in 17 years, in Las Vegas, Nevada;
  • A drop in backlogged compensation claims by about 36 percent in the last 250 days as our deliberate plan to leverage people, processes, and technologies has come together powerfully;
  • A 24 percent decrease in the estimated number of homeless Veterans—a remarkable trend during a period of economic challenge.

VA's mental health funding has increased by nearly 57 percent since 2009. Our budget request for FY 2014 includes nearly $7 billion to increase access to mental health services.

A year ago, the President directed the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. VA has exceeded that goal, and has also hired 800 peer support specialists to augment the professional staff.

One of our most successful mental health initiatives has been our Veterans Crisis Line. DoD knows it as the Military Crisis Line—same number, same trained mental health professionals answering the phone, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—an example of our partnering to deliver optimal care to those in need. Since start-up in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over 890,000 phone calls from Veterans in need. Most important, 30,000 of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress.

Three years ago, VA asked itself whether we might be overmedicating our patients, especially those under mental health treatment. VA helped develop and is implementing the joint DoD-VA pain management guidelines that discourage overuse of opiates in favor of other medications and therapies. Some of our 21 healthcare networks have taken steps to reduce the use of opiates. Since 2012, one network, based in Minneapolis, has cut its use of high-dose opiates by more than 50 percent and all but eliminated Oxycontin prescriptions, decreasing its use by 99 percent.

For Veterans entering the justice system who are already dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues, we have established Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO)—172 full-time specialists, working directly with justice officials, to see that Veterans who are before the court or already in jail get the care they need and that courts are supported in their consideration of best possible alternatives to incarceration. We are also working to connect our VJO specialists with American Indian tribal justice systems to do the same thing.

In their first year, 2010, VJO specialists served 5,800 Veterans. This year, that number is up to nearly 36,000 Veterans, and we plan to hire another 75 specialists next year.

Very few Veterans served by VJO specialists are first-time offenders—in fact, they average seven prior arrests. Of the 93 percent who have spent time in jail or prison, 20 percent have spent a year or more behind bars. Of the Veterans in this program, 40 percent have been homeless at least once. They are the challenging segment of our Veteran population, but the numbers also tell us we are making positive differences when we work with the courts to provide these Veterans VA care and services: Two thirds of Veterans before the treatment courts successfully complete their treatment regimens. When they receive VA services, they experience an 88 percent reduction in arrests from the year prior to the year after treatment court admission. They also benefit from a 30 percent increase in stable housing in the year after. VA, the courts, and our volunteer mentors have been able to attack the cycle between homelessness and incarceration, giving these Veterans a much better chance for success.

Prevention does not always work, and some Veterans do still go to jail or prison, so we have increased our presence there, as well. Our Health Care for Reentry Veterans program (HCRV) has 44 full-time specialists working in a thousand prisons—about 80 percent of all prisons in the United States. Our goal is to connect soon-to-be-released Veterans with VA healthcare, housing assistance, educational assistance, vocational counseling and training—to help reentry Veterans become productive citizens. We currently assist about 9,000 reentering Veterans each year—about one in six of all Veterans we estimate are being released.

So, last year we added a new online capability called the Veterans Reentry Search Service (VRSS) to enable corrections officials to quickly and easily identify any Veteran in their institutions. In just the past three months, the number of jail or prison systems using VRSS has more than doubled: VRSS now has 20 active users, with 30 more in the process of accessing the service.

I have written each governor encouraging collaboration through VRSS. With greater participation, we will be better able to identify and treat Veterans in need of our services, hopefully reducing their appearances before you. We intend to make VRSS available to the courts, as well.

Veterans who may be dealing with PTSD, TBI, depression, insomnia, substance use disorder, and pain need and deserve our help. We have an opportunity to help them with healthcare, safe housing, education, jobs—a chance to rebuild lives that have lost their way.

In closing—in the spring of 2012, Navy Veteran Donald Martin parked his pickup truck at a Virginia rest area. It had broken down, and Federal Park Rangers found him with an open container of alcohol and charged him with DUI.

Martin, 57, had been living in his sister's basement, after losing his job and going through a divorce. He had also been battling alcohol dependence for decades and already had two DUIs on his record. A third DUI conviction would mean automatic incarceration—another slip in the downward spiral in his post-Navy life.

His federal defense attorney recommended participating in a Veteran's treatment court. Without knowing much about it, Martin consented. The U.S. Attorney agreed to take the DUI charge off of the docket, allowing him to appear before Veterans treatment court.

The treatment court team—Judge Robert Ballou, the U.S. Attorney, Martin's defense attorney, his probation officer, and a VA Justice Outreach Specialist from the Salem VA medical center—helped Martin develop a plan towards recovery. He began attending a 24-week, outpatient, substance-abuse treatment program at the Salem VA, which included weekly individual and group treatment sessions. He also met with a vocational rehab counselor to address his need for employment. Two months into his participation in the Veterans treatment court, Martin was hired as a sprinkler system installer. He later told the court, "This was a boost to my self-esteem and my sobriety."

Veterans treatment court lasted six months, during which Donald Martin successfully completed his substance abuse treatment and maintained his sobriety and employment. When the six months were up, Judge Ballou presented Martin with a Challenge coin, symbolizing his graduation from treatment court.

To date, Martin remains employed, has maintained his sobriety and has had no further run-ins with the law. He has been promoted three times and has received a performance bonus from his employer. He has also reconnected with his ex-wife. Martin says of his arrest and its aftermath: "[Treatment court] changed my life. The court wasn't against me. They were in my corner. They wanted me to do well—to get my life straightened out. . . . You wouldn't believe the turn of events in my life."

We can't imagine a better ending to Donald Martin's story, and it's all because a judge and his treatment court team dared to care. I'm sure each of you has a similar story to tell.

My heartfelt thanks to all of you for giving these Veterans a chance to demonstrate that they were the folks who carried the safety of our country on their shoulders.

Thank you.