Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald Veterans Courts & Substance Abuse Roundtable

Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here. And thanks also to Bill Baer and Michael Botticelli for arranging this very timely discussion.

Seven years ago, VA named ending Veterans homelessness as one of its three main objectives. With the help of the First Lady’s Joining Forces Initiative and Mayors Challenge, we’ve forged powerful partnerships among Federal, state, and local agencies and nongovernmental organizations … and as a result, Veterans homelessness is down by 47 percent since 2010.

One of the reasons for our success has been the realization that the No. 1 risk factor behind Veterans homelessness is not mental illness, as we once thought—it’s substance abuse. And all too often, that substance abuse begins with opioids prescribed by DoD or VA doctors for service-related conditions. In fact, Veterans are 10 times more likely to abuse opioids than the average American.

Veterans are also more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and mental illness, which can lead to substance abuse, homelessness, criminality, and even suicide.

All of these things are preventable. We know that Veterans in our care are less likely to commit suicide, commit crimes, or end up homeless. So our focus has been on getting at-risk Veterans into the VA healthcare system.

For homeless Veterans, we’ve employed a proven strategy called “Housing First”—because treating Veterans for any condition is a lot easier once their basic need for shelter is met.

  • Since 2010, more than 360,000 Veterans and family members have been housed permanently, rapidly rehoused, or prevented from becoming homeless.
  • In 2015 alone, in partnerships with communities, VA provided services to more than 365,000 homeless, at-risk, and formally homeless Veterans through our homeless programs.
  • More than 36,000 Veterans and their family members—including over 6,500 children—were prevented from becoming homeless.

For justice-involved Veterans, we’re working with over 400 Veteran Treatment Courts, making sure eligible Veterans get timely treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues, and other VA services and benefits.

  • VA’s Justice Outreach Specialists have served over 127,000 justice-involved Veterans—more than 46,000 last year alone.
  • Two thirds of Veterans before Veteran Treatment Courts successfully complete their treatment regimens, 88 percent see a reduction in arrests, and 30 percent see an increase in stable housing in the year after.

For Veterans reentering society after incarceration, we’re working with Reintegration Into Society Effort (RISE) Courts to reduce the risk of recidivism and promote employment opportunities and economic stability.

  • The RISE program pairs Veterans with mentors who are Veterans themselves or people who have gone through the justice system.
  • The mentors know that incarceration brings hurdles that many Veterans struggle to overcome when released.
  • They talk with recently released Veterans at least once a week to make sure they stay on track.
  • For Veterans in our care, we have implemented a system-wide Opioid Safety Initiative to reduce our reliance on opioids and manage their use more carefully.
  • Since 2012, we’ve cut the number of VA patients on opioids by 25 percent.
  • We’ve also reduced the number of patients on long-term opioid therapy by 30 percent and on high-dose opioids by 36 percent.
  • And we’ve collected over 38,000 pounds of opioids from patients who don’t need them or want them.

We owe it to the Nation’s Veterans to help them end their dependence on opioids and break the downward spiral that all too often ends in homelessness, prison, or suicide.

But we can’t do it on our own. We rely on thousands of public- and private-sector partners to do what VA can’t do on its own.

We need your help to give America’s most vulnerable Veterans a chance to escape the revolving doors of emergency rooms, shelters, and jails.

It’s not just the right thing to do: It’s the smart thing to do—for Veterans themselves and for the communities their live in.

Thank you for being here today. I’m sure your time will be well spent.

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