Legislation designed to help combat suicide by U.S. military veterans passed in the Senate 99-0 on Tuesday, setting the stage for it soon to become federal law.
Approval of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act was lauded by veterans and suicide prevention groups as a victory that will save lives. The legislation is named after a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and later took his own life in 2011.
“We are extremely grateful for the Senate passing this bill and all those who have worked so hard on it. While we are a little bittersweet, because it is too late for our son Clay, we are thankful knowing that this bill will save many lives,” said Susan Selke, mother of Clay Hunt, in a statement. “No veteran should have to wait or go through bureaucratic red tape to get the mental health care they earned during their selfless service to our country. While this legislation is not a 100 percent solution, it is a huge step in the right direction.”
The Senate bill calls for the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a one-stop website to serve as a source of information for VA mental health services, address a shortage of mental health care experts by allowing VA to recruit them through a student loan repayment pilot program, expand how long veterans can seek mental health care services at VA to better address conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The bill also calls for an evaluation of all VA mental health care and suicide prevent practices to determine what is working and make recommendations on what is not and for the department to establish a new peer support pilot program designed to help service members who are leaving the military access VA mental health care services.
The bill had broad support on Capitol Hill last year, but was blocked from a vote by a single retiring politician, Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.). The fiscal conservative objected to it on the grounds that it would add $22 million in federal spending — less than a quarter of the cost of a new fighter jet. Coburn is no longer on Capitol Hill, however, allowing the vote in the Senate to proceed.
“This is a tremendous day for our community,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American and a staunch proponent of the legislation. “This bill gives many veterans the new hope they so desperately need and demonstrates that our leaders are willing to give veterans the care they deserve. We call on President Obama to demonstrate his commitment to our veterans with a public signing ceremony.”
Rieckhoff thanked McCain and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn.) for reintroducing the bill.
“While we are thrilled about today’s vote, all of us must remember the sobering reality that necessitated this action: the invisible wounds of war and our nation’s initial failure to treat them,” Rieckhoff said.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Tuesday that he is pleased the bill passed.
“I had the honor of meeting Sgt. Hunt’s parents and was inspired by their strength and their commitment to further improve care for Veterans like Clay,” he said in a statement. “Thanks to their efforts, this legislation will help VA take additional steps to improve mental health care for those who have borne the battle.”
McCain said in a statement that he was proud of the Senate for voting for the bill and concerned about the rate at which recent veterans are committing suicide.
“According to a study published this month in the ‘Annals of Epidemiology,’ the rate of suicide among veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is approximately 50 percent higher than the rate among the general public, and a shocking 22 military veterans commit suicide each day,” McCain said. “Our nation has much work still to do to fulfill its responsibilities for our veterans, and this bill is an important step in improving life-saving mental health care services for the men and women who have served and sacrificed.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement Tuesday that he was pleased the full Senate took up the legislation after it passed through his committee.
“When you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide – which is more veterans than have died in all of Iraq and all of Afghanistan since we’ve been fighting – then you have a serious problem,” he said. “This legislation is an important step toward providing better access to mental health resources for our veterans.”
Blumenthal said the bill’s passage is a “breakthrough step” that will help veterans.
“We owe these wounded warriors more effective mental health care, so they can win the war against inner demons that come home from service,” Blumenthal said. “This bill will help save lives – courageous, strong veterans who need and deserve enhanced psychiatric care, counseling, outreach support and accountability from the Veterans Administration.”
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D.-Ill.), who lost her legs as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004 and co-sponsored the House version of the bill, said the nature of changes in warfare mean the United States needs to adjust how it cares for veterans.
“Just as these veterans remained faithful to our country on the battlefield, it is our turn as their representatives to remain faithful to them,” she said. “This responsibility includes ensuring that when our service men and women make the brave decision to seek help, they get the quality assistance and treatment they deserve in a timely manner. I am proud that this bipartisan legislation passed the U.S. Senate and I look forward to its implementation.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also praised the bill’s passage, saying it was a victory not just for veterans, but the larger effort to prevent suicide.
“AFSP has set the bold goal of reducing the annual suicide rate 20 percent by 2025, and it’s legislation like the Clay Hunt Act that will make it happen,” said the foundation’s vice president, John Madigan.