Supporters of a sweeping veterans suicide prevention bill suffered a major setback Monday when retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked the measure in the waning hours of the year's legislative session.
The move likely means the end of the effort for this year, and potentially months of rebuilding work for advocates who had championed the bill as a critical step forward in veterans mental health care.
"This legislation is already long overdue," said Bonnie Carroll, president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. "The price we've already paid in lives waiting for this bill is already too high."
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention act, named for a Marine veteran activist who took his own life in 2011, would create new peer support programs for troubled veterans, mandate new online mental health resources, repay student loans for psychiatrists willing to work at Veterans Affairs facilities, and evaluate existing suicide prevention programs to insure their effectiveness.
Veterans groups have touted the measure as a key step forward in veterans mental health care, and blasted the delay in its passage as potentially costing lives.
House lawmakers easily approved the measure earlier this week, but Coburn blocked quick passage in the Senate over concerns about costs and program redundancy.
The measure costs $22 million over five years. Supporters have said VA can absorb those costs within existing budget parameters, creating no new funding need. But Coburn disputed that, saying at best the new effort will drain funds from existing programs.
In an emotional, defensive floor speech Monday night, Coburn said the measure "throws money and doesn't solve the real problem" of holding VA officials accountable to provide better programs and better oversight of department funds.
But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. — who forced Coburn to publicly object to the bill by bringing it up on the Senate floor — and officials from veterans groups angrily blasted those charges, saying the bill's price tag is "infinitely minuscule" compared with to billion-dollar budget bills routinely before Congress and the cost of losing Americans who served their country.
"It is clear that something needs to be done," said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "It is dangerous and dishonorable for one single senator to simply complain about and block efforts to combat the veteran suicide crisis without having offered any alternative solutions of his own."
The bill had also drawn support from VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who called it an important step forward towards "improving mental health care for our nation's veterans." Just hours before Monday's objection, he implored the Senate to pass the measure.
With Congress just a few days from adjourning for the year, the legislative defeat likely means supporters will have to reintroduce and rebuild momentum for the measure next year.
Veterans groups have vowed to do just that, but noted the delay will deprive many struggling veterans the help they need right now. About 22 veterans a day take their own lives, according to VA statistics.