Gov. DeSantis signs veteran suicide prevention bill into law

The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs (FDVA) will be required to provide suicide prevention training as part of a pilot program to veteran service organizations, according to a bill Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Wednesday.

Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, who previously led the FDVA and is a Major in the Army Reserve, sponsored the bill (SB 1712). In committee, Burgess said that the prevention training had been one of his long-term goals for the FDVA.

“We want to incorporate additional training that will help ensure that our (veteran claims examiners) are not just outstanding at their role of helping connect veterans to their earned services, benefits and support,” Burgess said, “but also outstanding in their ability to recognize, identify, facilitate and coordinate care for veterans or family members who may be calling them in the middle of crisis.”

Proponents of the bill contend veteran suicide is at an epidemic level. Despite a 2019 pre-pandemic federal report suggesting veterans are committing suicide less, the Veteran Crisis Line — a 24/7 suicide prevention service — is reporting a dramatic increase in calls.

The nonprofit has logged a 7% increase in calls, a 40% increase in online chats and a 98% increase in texts since 2020. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, meanwhile, also has reported an increase. On average, more than 500 veterans commit suicide each year in Florida.

St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond is the companion bill sponsor.

“At every level of government, we have a moral obligation to provide the best quality care to our veterans,” Diamond said after the bill was signed. “The Veteran Suicide Prevention Training Pilot Program will increase local mental health care resources available for the brave men and women who answered the call to serve our nation.”

Continued Diamond, “I am grateful to Senate Sponsor Senator Danny Burgess and my House co-sponsor Representative David Smith for working alongside me to pass this important legislation into law, which will save lives and help end the epidemic of veteran suicide.”

The pilot program — which seeks a one-time $500,000 lump sum — is scheduled to sunset June 2026, unless the Department seeks an extension.

The Department also must send an annual report to the Senate President and House Speaker providing updates and recommendations.

Winter Springs Republican Rep. David Smith, a Marine veteran, advocated for the bill throughout the 2022 Legislative Session.

“It’s common-sense legislation,” Smith said. “It’s low dollar, high impact.”

The bill will take effect July 1.