Veterans

Veterans suicide prevention plans take a big step forward, but still face tough political hurdles

Senate lawmakers advanced a major veterans suicide prevention initiative on Wednesday, creating a potential legislative path for the action on the issue by the end of the year.

But the measure also could turn into yet another election-year partisan fight if party leaders can’t find quick compromises on lingering policy differences.

The bill, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, has been stalled in the chamber since last year but was approved without objection as lawmakers prepare for their upcoming August recess.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., called the measure a much-needed new approach to federal suicide prevention efforts for veterans.

“This bill will make necessary investments in suicide prevention,” he said on the Senate floor just before passage. “It will improve and support innovative research. It will make improvements and increase the availability of mental health care. VA will be required to better collaborate with community organizations across the country serving veterans.”

The measure — named for Hannon, a Navy Seal who died by suicide in early 2018 — has been highlighted for months by some veterans advocacy groups as a potential breakthrough measure efforts to curb veterans suicide.

According to the latest department statistics, about 20 veterans and service members die by suicide each day. More veterans died by suicide from 2005 and 2017 (nearly 79,000) than the total number of U.S. troops who died in 30 years of war in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan (about 65,000).

The Hannon bill would broaden the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention efforts through a series of investments in outreach programs and scholarships for mental health professionals.

VA officials would be granted direct hiring authority to more quickly fill staffing gaps in mental health services, and a new grant program would encourage collaboration with community organizations in providing quick aid to veterans in distress, especially in rural areas.

“The biggest challenge facing VA today is that we’re losing 20 veterans a day to suicide,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont. “People have been looking for solutions and looking for solutions and the fact is there is no silver bullet. But what we’ve done today is give VA more tools in their toolbox to be able to address this problem.”

Many provisions in the bill echo proposals under discussion in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in recent weeks, as that panel has made its own summer legislative push on suicide prevention.

Late Wednesday, committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., called for immediate action on the Senate plan.

“It includes numerous provisions that would help fulfill our calling to support and protect veterans at risk,” he said in a statement. “While we cannot bring the thousands of (veterans lost to suicide) back, we can solemnly honor them and all of our nation’s veterans by delivering this bill to President Trump’s desk without any further delay.”

But quick passage of the Hannon bill without any House alterations is unlikely. The Democratic-lead House committee has looked at different requirements for community mental health grants, body cameras for VA police to better track first-responders suicide awareness training, and broader discussion of safe storage for veterans firearms — all items that aren’t in the Senate version.

Still, the momentum of a major Senate veterans bill combined with the House committee’s work could provide some momentum on the issue in coming months, and possibly compromise legislation by the end of the year.

If so, 2020 could prove to be a key milestone in the suicide prevention effort.

Earlier this summer, the White House unveiled its own initiative — the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) — designed to bring together federal agencies towards a common goal of finding solutions to the problem.

That work includes a new public awareness campaign about the signs of suicide and available mental health resources, as well as a promised discussion on lethal means safety.

Veterans Affairs officials have noted that only about one-third of veterans who die by suicide have regular contact with department services or health care specialists. In recent years, as lawmakers and administration officials have worked to address the problem, the percentage of veterans in VA care who have died by suicide has decreased.

Advocates say that points to an increasing need for outreach to veterans unfamiliar with their military benefits, or still worried about the stigma of seeking help for mental health challenges.

Both the House and the Senate are expected to start their summer break in coming days. When lawmakers return to Capitol Hill in September (for a short legislative session before a longer, pre-election recess), House Veterans’ Affairs Committee leaders are hoping for action on their pending bills.

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.

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