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U.S. Veterans Affairs secretary urges Cleveland vets to seek mental and physical health care

Secretary Denis McDonough, left, addresses an audience during a visit to Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.
U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged veterans' frustrations with wait times and bureaucracy in receiving health care during a town hall meeting in Cleveland.

Veterans experiencing mental health problems should seek immediate help, said U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough during a visit to the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center Wednesday.

"If you are veteran and you are in acute mental health crisis, if you are considering suicide, you can go to any hospital in the country — a VA hospital, a private hospital," McDonough said. "They will get you care and we will pay for that."

Veterans commit suicide at a rate about 72% higher than the general U.S. population, though their reported rates of anxiety and depression are slightly lower than that of the general population.

In a town hall format, McDonough answered questions and heard concerns from veterans at the hospital. He also highlighted a new law called the PACT Act, which expands VA health care and benefits for veterans who were exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances.

He said 47,000 veterans have already benefit from the law.

McDonough urged vets to review new eligibility requirements and get the health care they need, even if they were misguided by VA in the past.

"This happened with a lot of our women veterans, this happened with a lot of our Vietnam veterans. We didn't not treat you the way we should have treated you, but we're asking you give us another shot," he said.

Women veterans have reportedly faced obstacles to accessing proper health care, in part because veterans are predominantly male.

McDonough also emphasized the need for cardiac and mental health care among veterans as some patients have reported wait times of more than 30 days for substance abuse and mental health services. Several veterans in attendance mentioned frustration with wait times and bureaucracy.

The VA hired 62,000 people in the last year, hoping to cut down on overall wait times, McDonough said.

Some veterans just wanted to be heard. One emotional vet, Dwayne Parish, told the secretary he feels forgotten for his service during the 1983 Beruit bombings.

"We were involved in a war, whatever people want to consider it. There's not a lot being done about us. There's nothing mentioned about us," Parish said.

McDonough acknowledged the concern and said he appreciated Parish's service.

The secretary also met with hospital leaders to tour several departments.

Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.