Pentagon & Congress

House again passes veterans suicide prevention bill

For the second time in five weeks, House lawmakers unanimously passed sweeping veterans mental health legislation designed to launch new community outreach efforts and recruit more psychiatrists to slow the nation's estimated 22 veterans suicides each day.

And, for the second time in five weeks, supporters will have to wait and see when — or if — the Senate will move ahead on the measure.

House lawmakers called passage of the bill a critical need for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which estimates as many as 22 veterans a day commit suicide.

"Since we last passed this bill ... 750 veterans have taken their lives," said bill sponsor Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. "We cannot wait another day. We cannot pass this problem forward."

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention bill, named for a Marine veteran activist who took his own life in 2011, would require an annual evaluation of VA suicide prevention programs, to determine which are working and which need to be replaced.

It would mandate a new website better detailing the department's many mental health resources, and create new peer support programs for veterans outreach. Supporters say both of those are relatively simple changes which could produce immediate aid for veterans in crisis.

The measure would also start a pilot program to repay student loans of psychiatry students, helping VA officials more quickly fill those specialty vacancies. Veterans groups have criticized the department for being too slow and uncompetitive in many aspects of mental health hiring, and see the loan paybacks as a valuable incentive.

Both department officials and Pentagon health experts have placed extra emphasis on the problem in recent years, but results of those efforts so far have been inconclusive.

Last month, in the waning days of the last congressional session, House lawmakers sped the Clay Hunt Act through their chamber in hopes of making it law before the end of 2014. But, that plan hit a snag in the Senate, when retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked its passage out of that chamber, calling it redundant and rushed legislation.

That move drew the ire of several veterans groups, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who said Coburn had sullied his 20-year legislative career with the opposition.

"We know the same old, same old plan isn't working," said Alex Nicholson, legislative director at IAVA. "We have to start filling holes in the puzzle."

Monday's vote came as House leaders once again fasttracked the measure in their chamber, skipping the normal committee process and making the measure one of their first bills passed in the new session.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., praised Monday's vote as a chance for Congress to provide immediate help to struggling veterans, and to repay in part their service and sacrifice.

"This bill ... will not single-handedly stop the surge of veteran suicides," he said. "But it is an important step."

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Iskason Isakson, R-Ga., said the Clay Hunt bill will be among the first items considered when his committee begins its work later this month.

But Senate lawmakers in coming days also could bypass the normal committee process and send the bill before the full chamber for a vote. Since Coburn's departure, no senators have publicly objected to the measure.

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