February 15, 2022
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) today urged a top Pentagon nominee to prioritize addressing a rash of military and veterans suicides by utilizing data and technology to prevent these tragedies. In a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, King asked Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez – nominee to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs – how coordination between the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration’s medical system could help prevent suicides, and help veterans in the critical period following military separation. The exchange builds on a conversation Senator King had on the issue of insufficient data on military suicides from a 20 year Air Force veteran as part of his series Answering the Call, Maine’s Veteran Voice.
Beginning his questioning, Senator King asked Dr. Martinez-Lopez to commit to intervening as necessary to address military and veteran suicide.
“There is an epidemic within the military and within our military veterans community and that is suicide,” said Senator King. “We have taken a various steps but I hope that attending to this matter and working on prevention, identification of high risks, how to intervene properly to prevent it will be one of your priorities because this is literally killing both active duty military members and particularly veterans.”
“Senator, thank you very much for championing this cause. One suicide is too many. It’s a daughter, it’s a husband, a brother, a sister. I’ve been at the receiving end as a physician, where I’ve dealt with this, and it’s devastating not only to the families, but it’s devastating to the whole force. I come with energy, if confirmed, to tackle this issue,” responded Dr. Martinez-Lopez. “We need to bring new eyes, I will bring eyes from academia, from other places, we need to bring about new technology, new ways of looking at ways to mitigate this. We need to look at expanding the mental health services, in such a way that hits the mark and really prevents this awful occurrence. Again, if confirmed, I commit to really work hard initially on this issue, sir.”
Continuing his questioning, Senator King pressed Dr. Martinez-Lopez on the lack of communication between Department of Defense and Veterans Administration systems, and how fixing this issue could help address military and veterans’ suicides.
“This is not strictly related, this is not a medical issue, but a software issue. We continue to have this frustrating problem of a lack interoperability between the Department of Defense medical records systems and the Veterans Administration,” Senator King continued. “Will you give me a commitment to really dig into this because this is software, we’re not trying to cure all the world’s diseases here, we’re just trying to have two systems talk to one another. Please take this on also as a project.”
“Senator, this electronic health record is key to many of the new ways to deliver healthcare. It is a critical component to not only a service member but a veteran. So, if confirmed, you have my commitment to work with the Department of the VA to promote this and make sure that not only the employees of the Department of Defense, but licensures for the Department of Defense are transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs because we owe that to our service members and we owe that to our veterans,” committed Dr. Martinez-Lopez.
“Well it also relates back to the suicide issue. I’ve met with veterans and people working on this issue and it appears that a significant percentages of the suicides take place in the first two or three years after separation from active duty, so again this hand-off should be seamless and not tangled up in software confusion, in terms of conveyance of records, so I appreciate your attention to that,” concluded Senator King.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator King has worked to address the epidemic of military and veteran suicides. Last month, Senator King sat down with a 20-year Air Force Veteran to discuss the issue of insufficient data on military suicides. He also recently introduced the Save Our Servicemembers (S.O.S.) Act, which would work to improve Department of Defense’s servicemember suicide prevention efforts. Last year, the Senate unanimously passed legislation cosponsored by Senator King that will designate 9-8-8 as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Veterans Crisis line. Senator King has also worked to create a first-of-its-kind Senate fellowship program for wounded American veterans, and has worked to improve the services for Maine veterans across the state, including at the Togus campus in Augusta.