Lawmakers are considering a host of bills to deal with the ongoing problem of veterans suicide, but still haven’t reached a clear consensus on which ones will get top priority or even enough support to become law.
On Tuesday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., unveiled his newest suicide prevention proposal, dubbed the Veterans ACCESS Act. The measure would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for any veterans’ emergency mental health care treatments, regardless of individual’s discharge status or where the visits take place (including private-sector facilities).
Takano did not have a cost-estimate for the plan but said the move would eliminate any financial concerns for veterans suffering a mental health crisis, encouraging more to seek care.
“This is the most significant step forward and addressing veterans suicide in years,” he said. “Upon passage of this law, guardsmen and reservists — who had no access to this type of health care before — will be eligible to be able to address those issues now.”
The bill announcement comes a day after Takano unveiled plans for a “new strategy” to address veteran suicide this year, including a blitz of hearings, briefings and new legislation aimed at providing broader solutions on the issue of suicide.
According to the latest VA statistics, about 20 veterans and currently serving troops die by suicide each day. That number has remained consistent in recent years, despite increased public focus and funding from VA to combat the problem.
In March, the White House is scheduled to unveil the results of a year-long, multi-department effort to provide new solutions to the problem of veterans suicide. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has lead the task force spearheading that effort, and has promised a “roadmap for veteran suicide prevention” for both federal agencies and local community organizers.
But in recent months, Wilkie and Takano have sparred over solutions to the problem. Another piece of suicide prevention legislation — dubbed the Veterans IMPROVE Act — was passed by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee after significant revisions by Takano, which lost most Republican lawmakers support.
Wilkie had publicly lobbied for the measure as a way to better involve community groups in the suicide prevention effort, joining House Republican’s in labeling the measure one of the most important bills Congress could pass to help reduce suicides.
The original legislation called for a pilot program to direct funding to local advocates providing mental health assistance to veterans, but limits were put on which organizations would be eligible after some veterans groups (and Takano) raised concerns about directing resources and distressed individuals to unproven treatments.
On Tuesday, Takano said he will continue to work with lawmakers on other suicide prevention measures but called the new ACCESS bill a “top priority” that he thinks can immediately address unmet needs in VA care.
“This bill is significant, but it's one element of what needs to happen,” he said. “There needs to be far more outreach (by VA) … It's a combination of oversight, more legislation and culture change.”
On the opposite side of Capitol Hill, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. and the new chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has scheduled a mark-up hearing for Wednesday to include several measures dealing with veterans mental health, including a bipartisan measure targeting VA suicide prevention efforts that he has promoted as a top legislative goal for the year.
The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act would allow for quicker hiring of mental health professionals by VA, expanding new veterans’ access to VA health care, and bolster funding for mental health care in rural and underserved regions.
Moran has said those changes would compliment some of the expected results of the presidential task force on preventing suicide. The measure is sponsored by the committee’s top Democrat, Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester, and is expected to easily advance on Wednesday.
But all of the varied legislation faces an uncertain future in Congress, which is currently grappling with limited Senate votes because of the ongoing impeachment trial of President Donald Trump and anticipating far fewer voting days this year because of the primary and general elections.
While nothing specific blocks lawmakers from passing each of the IMPROVE, ACCESS and Commander Hannon Acts, the different focus from different lawmakers could result in a fractured legislative effort to produce significant legislation on suicide prevention.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers have offered their own potential fixes, in hopes those ideas could be partnered with any suicide prevention bills that gain legislative momentum.
Last week, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., offered two new measures — one mandating new research by VA and defense officials on suicides shortly after military separation, another mandating new clinical guidelines for both departments on a host of mental health conditions — he called “an important step” for lawmakers to adopt to save veterans lives.
Takano’s committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss both his new legislation and broader efforts by VA to reach suicidal veterans. He said he hopes to work with House Republicans and administration officials on a path ahead in coming weeks, with the goal of reducing that 20-a-day figure in the near future.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.