NYHealth President and CEO David Sandman, Ph.D., provided the following testimony on the health and related needs of New York City veterans to the New York City Council Committee on Finance for its Fiscal Year 2024 Executive Budget Hearing:

Thank you, Chairperson Brannan and members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify today about the health needs of veterans in New York City. I am pleased to provide testimony on behalf of the New York Health Foundation (NYHealth), a private, independent, statewide foundation dedicated to improving the health of all New Yorkers—including the more than 200,000 or so veterans who call New York City their home.

In our work on behalf of veterans, we have used grants, policy analysis, convenings, and advocacy to create universal access to Veterans Treatment Courts, build a robust network of community-based services, and prepare health care providers to understand veteran culture and meet their unique needs.

Our veteran population is becoming increasingly diverse. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 23% of New York State’s veteran population, with that proportion expected to reach nearly 30% by 2030. The share of women veterans is also growing quickly; women are expected to make up 10% of New York’s veteran population by 2025.[1]

As we all adapt to an evolving veteran population with unique needs, we encourage the Council to prioritize:

  • Improving mental health services and addressing veteran suicide;
  • Producing local data about our veterans;
  • Maximizing veterans’ access to new health benefits; and
  • Supporting a robust Department of Veterans’ Services.

Improving Mental Health and Addressing Veteran Suicide: Mission:VetCheck
While media depictions too often suggest otherwise, I want to dispel the notion that all veterans are violent or struggling. The majority of veterans return from deployments and transition to civilian life relatively smoothly; they’re healthy, ready to work or go to school, and eager to settle into their communities.

But for some, the adjustment isn’t so easy. They may struggle with physical injuries and disabilities, and they may also be dealing with the invisible wounds of war: mental health issues including PTSD, suicidal ideation, and substance use. They may also be challenged by food insecurity, lack of employment, or homelessness.

A top priority must be meeting veterans’ mental health needs and preventing veteran suicide. In 2020, veterans in New York were nearly twice as likely as the State’s general population to die by suicide.[2] Particularly concerning is the increasing rate of suicide among New York’s youngest veterans. My colleague (and Marine veteran) Derek Coy testified before the City Council earlier this year about the need for supportive services for student veterans at the City University of New York—a younger population with an elevated risk of suicide

Also alarming is New York veterans’ increased usage of firearms in suicide attempts in each of the last five years.[3] Tackling this problem requires a multi-faceted approach, including restricting access to guns. Firearms are by far the most lethal method of suicide; they are deadly in 85% of attempts, compared with 5% for all other methods.

Among other suicide prevention programs, we have invested in a successful partnership between New York Cares and the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS) to operate Mission: VetCheck, an award-winning program that provided “buddy checks,” peer-to-peer support, and referrals to nearly 30,000 veterans across New York City. Using trained volunteers, the program conducts veteran outreach via phone calls to check on their wellbeing and connect them with services and resources. NYHealth expects to provide New York Care with another round of financial support to refine and continue Mission:VetCheck. We encourage the Council to keep a close watch on the program’s reach and impact. After this next phase, public funding will be vital to sustain this lifesaving program’s work.

New Local Data on Veteran Suicide
At present, only State-level data on veteran suicide are available. This information void makes local planning and targeting of services more difficult, including here in New York City. Having local data can help government agencies and community-based organizations identify the veteran populations most affected by suicide in their communities—and target their prevention efforts accordingly. These data will also enable organizations to evaluate effectiveness of their suicide prevention work.

The City’s Bureau of Vital Statistics can make available and leverage local data, where appropriate, to aid government and nonprofit organizations in their service efforts at relatively little cost. New, more precise data will be a beneficial resource to program planning and policy development at the City level.

Maximizing Veterans’ Access to New Health Care Benefits
New York should also take advantage of recent unprecedented expansions of federal benefits and increased access to health care for veterans. The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act expands eligibility for Veterans Administration (VA) health care to any veteran with toxic exposure. A complementary policy allows every veteran, regardless of their previous VA eligibility, to get access to VA or private care for acute suicidal crises. Together, these policies represent the largest benefits expansion in VA history.

But many veterans, health care providers, local government officials, and veterans service organizations are unaware of the expansion and how to get the benefits for which they have newly qualified. There is a need and an opportunity to educate veterans and the organizations that serve them about these new benefits and how to use them. An expanded Mission: VetCheck program will ensure every veteran within the five boroughs is aware of, and has access to, the benefits they have earned.

New York City’s Department of Veterans’ Services
DVS is the linchpin of local efforts to advance veterans’ health and wellbeing. As recently as 2015, the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs had a meager budget and almost no staff. Thanks to the leadership of the City Council, DVS was elevated to a full-fledged agency led by a Commissioner in 2016.

That move immediately increased the Department’s size and expanded its role. Its enhanced portfolio of work includes benefits enrollment, employment and housing assistance, mental health outreach, and referrals to mental health resources and food and nutrition programs. For example, DVS was a key partner, alongside the New York State Division of Veterans’ Services and community-based organizations, to deliver hundreds of thousands of meals to veterans facing food insecurity across the City during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A robustly funded, high-performing DVS is beyond essential. Thanking veterans for their service means nothing if we don’t back up those words with the first-class services and supports they need and deserve.

In conclusion, we respect and share the Council’s commitment to New York City’s veterans. I hope you will look to the New York Health Foundation as a resource for your important work. You can learn about our veterans work and more by visiting our website, www.nyhealthfoundation.org.

Thank you.



[1] More information on New York State’s veteran population—including statistics on factors affecting veterans’ health such as employment status, income, and food security—is available at https://nyhealthfoundation.org/resource/new-yorks-veterans-an-in-depth-profile-2/.

[2] New York Health Foundation, “Data Snapshot: Veteran Suicide in New York State,” March 2023, https://nyhealthfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/data-snapshot-veteran-suicide-new-york-state-2011%E2%80%932020.pdf.

[3] New York Health Foundation, “Data Snapshot: Veteran Suicide in New York State,” March 2023, https://nyhealthfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/data-snapshot-veteran-suicide-new-york-state-2011%E2%80%932020.pdf.

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