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Veterans in suicidal crisis can go to any emergency room for no-cost treatment

The San Diego VA Medical Center is pictured in this undated image.
Nicholas McVicker
The San Diego VA Medical Center is pictured in this undated image.

Veterans in immediate suicidal crisis can now receive free emergency care wherever they are, because of the Compact Act, signed into law in 2020. The new policy went into effect on Jan.17 and allows veterans to go to any hospital emergency room — Veterans Affairs or otherwise — without having to worry about a bill.

“Really the intent here isn’t to do anything differently clinically,” said Niloofar Afari, associate chief of staff for mental health at VA San Diego Healthcare System. “The intent is to provide the clinical services for suicidal care without a cost to the veteran.”

Veterans do not have to be enrolled in the VA health system to be covered. VA officials estimate that it will provide this emergency care to an additional 9 million former service members nationwide. Afari said they want to remove barriers for treatment.


“If folks choose to come to the VA we welcome them and we want to treat them,” Afari said. “If veterans choose to go into the community for these sorts of emergencies — suicidal care — the VA wants to pay for that.”

Afari said those in a suicidal crisis who seek help outside of the VA system should let hospitals know they are veterans and if they do end up getting a bill, bring it to the VA to be taken care of. Under the policy veterans can access up to 30 days of no cost inpatient care and up to 90 days of outpatient treatment.

“I think it’s a huge game changer and it’s not just California this is going to impact,” said Kelly Williams, clinic director at the Steven Cohen Military Family Clinic at Veterans Village of San Diego.

The Cohen Veterans Clinic is one of the local providers who could be tapped for the continued outpatient care.

“This will really help us because we focus on overall mental health,” Williams said. “So we provide services of therapy, psychiatry and case management.”


Williams said she is eager to hear more from VA about how this no-cost outpatient care will work. VA officials said local hospitals are already aware and are ready to help veterans.

“If they’re (veterans) in the middle of an acute crisis — they shouldn't think they need to drive 60 miles to get to the VA,” Afari said. “They should go to the nearest emergency room.”

Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide can dial 988 to access the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, the service is available 24 hours a day.