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Senate approves amendment to expand military mental health care

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Senate has approved adding an amendment to the Defense authorization bill to require the Pentagon to create a comprehensive and standardized suicide prevention program.

The amendment, which was offered by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman  Patty Murray (D-Wash.), was approved by voice vote Tuesday night and will be included in the bill being considered by the Senate.

The military has been plagued by increases in the number of suicides. As of the end of October, the number of suspected suicides by active-duty soldiers had reached 166, one more than the total for 2011.

“I think everyone in this body knows about, and is distressed by, the alarming rate of suicide and the mental health problems in our military and veterans populations,” Murray said on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday.

The legislation would also expand eligibility for some Department of Veterans Affairs mental health services to family members and strengthen oversight of the Pentagon’s mental health programs and the Integrated Disability Evaluation System established by the Department of Defense and VA.

It would also promote the use of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to provide peer counseling for fellow veterans, and require the VA to establish accurate and reliable measures for mental health services.

Implementing the amendment would cost about $25 million over five years, according to an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

“We must have effective suicide prevention programs in place,” Murray said. “It’s often only on the brink of crisis that a service member or veteran seeks care. If they are told, ‘Sorry, we are too busy to help you,’ we have lost the opportunity to help, and that is not acceptable.”

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