Keita Franklin, the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' suicide prevention office, is leaving the department.
VA officials confirmed a Military Times report Wednesday that Franklin will depart in July. Officials said the move is for professional reasons: Franklin “plans to focus on suicide prevention in a non-VA role,” according to a statement issued by VA Media Relations Director Susan Carter.
Veterans Crisis Line Director Matt Miller will become the VA's acting National Director for Suicide Prevention until a permanent replacement is named, Carter said.
Franklin has been in the post for 21 months, first serving for three months as acting director and then named to the permanent position in April 2018. She previously served as head of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, an assignment she held for more than two years.
In hearings before Congress this year, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie praised Franklin, saying "there is no person in this country who has done more to raise awareness and fight what is a terrible but preventable tragedy in this country, and that is the issue of suicide."
The Department's statement marking the announcement was equally effusive.
"Under her leadership, VA instituted a public health approach to suicide prevention, developed the first ever national strategy for veteran suicide prevention, significantly bolstered private sector partnerships, and garnered commitments from mayors and governors to implement broad community-based programs to prevent veterans suicide," the statement read.
Franklin's departure, however, comes at a time when VA's suicide prevention efforts are under increased scrutiny from veterans organizations and members of Congress.
Both the House and Senate have held hearings this year on the problem of veterans suicides, which remain at more than 6,000 a year, despite millions dedicated to prevention and awareness efforts.
In January, the department came under fire for failing to spend $6.14 million in funds allocated for paid suicide prevention media advertising campaigns. The number of ads, public service announcements, radio spots and billboards declined significantly under Franklin's watch: According to the Government Accountability Office, the VA developed 47 pieces of social media content in 2018, down from 339 in 2016; failed to air any public service announcements on radio or TV for more than a year; and did not develop any new paid advertising for 2018 despite having a budget of $6.2 million.
VA also has experienced a number of veterans' suicides at VA facilities. In the past two years, at least 23 veterans have died by suicide at VA facilities.
In March, President Donald Trump announced the formation of a Cabinet-level task force to address veterans’ suicide. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie heads the group, which is tasked to develop a plan for preventing suicides at the national and local levels.
"Veterans suicide requires and all-hands-on-deck approach to preserve the lives of our veterans who have served our country," Wilkie said last week as he announced a request for information to gather ideas on prevention to develop a national research strategy on suicide.
The Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.