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Veteran Suicide Prevention: We need to close gaps in grant program

Fox Grants application window prevented smaller organization from having access to this important funding.

This op-ed originally appeared on Dallas Morning News

This year marks the third anniversary of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement (Hannon) Act, passed in 2020 to broaden mental health care and suicide prevention programs for veterans by building upon the Veterans Affairs Department’s existing mental health services.

This law was a massive stride for veterans and is part of a push for greater veteran health care and resources that we’ve seen in recent years, passed a year after the MISSION Act just two before the PACT Act. For the estimated 41% of veterans in need of mental health care programs, the implementation of this legislation can truly make a difference in veterans’ personal lives, which is why it’s important it works as intended.

Within the Hannon Act, the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program, or Fox Grant, allocates funding for organizations to offer traditional and nontraditional suicide prevention resources to veterans and their families. While the Hannon Act was a step in the right direction, the Fox Grant funding has not had the impact it could. For the Fox Grant to best serve its intended purpose, Congress needs to appropriate more funding, and the VA needs to revisit implementation policies to ensure the organizations that need these grants to serve veterans are able to obtain them.

The Fox Grant contributes to the VA’s Whole Health model by providing $174 million, over three years, in resources to veteran-supported community organizations nationwide. However, that is only a fraction of the VA’s 2023 budget of $381.71 billion. With less than 50% of veterans enrolled in VA health care, appropriating additional funds for grants to local organizations makes perfect sense, considering the organizations have connections in the veteran community that the local VA does not have. Congress needs to make suicide prevention a priority — and reflect the gravity of the issue with more funding allotted specifically to this cause.

Still, after Congress appropriates additional funding, the VA needs to ensure it is accessible for all nonprofits that need funding to help veterans in their community.

While the Notice of Funding Opportunity states that the VA will prioritize awards for rural counties, medically underserved areas, counties with a high number of minority and female veterans, and areas with a high number or percentage of calls to the Veterans Crisis Line, there are barriers that stand directly in the way of these groups applying in the first place.

This year, the Fox Grant application window opened on March 2 and closed on May 19. For smaller organizations without the resources for full-time staff members dedicated to completing and submitting the application, it may be difficult to compete with larger, more established organizations and submit the grant within the allotted time frame.

Moreover, these organizations may not know about these opportunities in the first place. I’ve spoken with at least four nonprofits in Dallas and hundreds nationwide, doing great work in their local community, that had no idea about the Fox Grants. The VA needs to invest resources in targeted awareness of these grant opportunities — especially to the communities that their notice claims to prioritize. Ensuring the application window is long enough for organizations to sustainably and effectively complete all requirements — and that the organizations have the awareness of these kinds of opportunities — will help promote parity among applicants and put necessary funding into diverse veterans communities in need.

Without these measures in place, funding is funneled to large organizations that often have other means of procuring financial support for their programming. Last year, 80 Fox Grant awards went to health care companies and state-level veteran departments that have the means to get the application completed more easily — and are also more likely to have alternate funding sources. Those organizations likely do great work, but it was Congress’ intent that these funding opportunities go to more local organizations.

It’s clear lawmakers, the VA, and community leaders want to see veterans get the support they need to overcome upstream issues before it gets to a crisis point. But in order to do that most effectively, we need to be honest about necessary improvements to our systems in order to save the lives of more veterans. When the stakes are high, we can’t settle for good enough.

Dallas-Fort Worth native Cole Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, former policy adviser in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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