VA rejects new suicide prevention program claiming it's already out of money

Elizabeth Howe
March 15, 2019 - 1:52 pm

Photo courtesy of DVIDS

It's only March, but VA is claiming its fiscal year 2019 budget for suicide prevention has already been allocated — even though last year the agency left most of its suicide prevention media outreach budget unspent.

Jim Sisco, founder and CEO of ENODO Global, spent months working with VA's suicide prevention team to implement a program to reduce the number of veteran suicides. 

"ENODO Global is a risk advisory firm that focuses on a specific type of risk that we call Social Risks," Sisco explained. "Our Social Risk analysis is focused on identifying and solving complex social problems for private sector clients and governments."

One of the Social Risks ENODO has identified and worked on is veteran suicides. 

"We saw a lot of money and resources and attention being directed at these problems but not really any good solutions," Sisco said. "Nothing is really changing."

So ENODO developed a program that addresses one of the biggest gaps in VA suicide prevention efforts — veterans not enrolled in VA programs. Of the roughly 20 veterans who die by suicide each day, 14 of them are not enrolled in VA programs. ENODO's program would target that high-risk group of individuals. 

RELATED: VA Director of Suicide Prevention on what really happened with their budget

"Dr. Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevention, was very responsive. We presented to her team on Feb. 1 and it was very well-received," Sisco said. "They saw how our program could enhance or optimize the existing programs. They saw that there was a gap in what they were doing and that our approach would fill that gap. They offered to introduce it to their data scientists, they wanted to take it back to Dr. Franklin for a decision, and then come back to us."

That's where the cooperation and progress came to a stop. 

"By March 1st, I was quite concerned. I hadn't heard from them in a month after they said it would be 7 to 10 days. After several emails and phone calls to them, I emailed Dr. Franklin," Sisco said.

The response was "one of the most disappointing emails" Sisco says he had ever received. 

One of the key VA individuals his team had been working with left the office and was replaced by a new individual, Ms. Wendy Lakso, who sent in an email:

"At this time our FY19 funds have been obligated. We do not have plans for an additional pilot. What we’ll do though, is make sure we hold on to your information and look out [sic] outlying years to assess the need and feasibility for a pilot like this."

"I find it hard to believe that they have allocated their entire budget for FY19 when we're only in Q2 of this year," Sisco said in response to the email. "It's unfathomable for me to believe that...And it's really upsetting that everyone we've introduced the project to immediately sees how it could add value to their existing efforts and how their current capabilities do not engage veterans who are not enrolled in programs."

Sisco hopes that ENODO's program could have a significant impact on the high-risk veterans who have not been reached by VA — if only VA would help them get it off the ground.

"If this is how individuals within the organization are handling the problem, that's why we continue to struggle and not find solutions," Sisco said.

The VA confirmed that all money for FY 19 has been allocated. In a written statement to Connecting Vets they said: 

"VA decides to work with companies based on an established process that evaluates merit, and the department does business with those who will help put Veterans first by ensuring taxpayer resources are utilized in the most efficient manner possible. We are under no obligation to work with any particular vendor."

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